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Visiting the World's Most Powerful Telescopes: #MeetESO

From May 7, Discovery News will be in the Chilean Atacama Desert to visit the European Southern Observatory's sites and observe the Mercury Transit.

Since the dawn of humankind, we've looked up to the sky and pondered the awe-inspiring mysteries of the universe.

At first, we explained our rudimentary observations of the heavens with myth and superstition. Then, as we became a society driven by science, we learned that the cosmos couldn't be explained by stories; observation and theory brought the realization that we occupy a planet, orbiting some star - of countless billions others - in a spiral galaxy in a not-so-special region of a vast expanse we now know as a 14 billion-year-old universe.

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Though we are only just beginning our epic quest to understand the true nature of space, time, energy and matter, humanity has come a long way since the invention of the telescope and the fundamental realization that gravity dictates the motion of the planets as much as it dictates the fate of the universe. We now have powerful particle colliders that are pulling at the fundamental threads of the structure of matter and spacetime. And we've given our planet "eyes" to see some of the most distant (and therefore, most ancient) structures in the universe.

A consequence of being what we would consider to be an intelligent (and somewhat technologically proficient) life form, despite our terrible flaws, we've evolved with the profound ability to not only consider the nature of our universe, but also gone full circle to question our place in it. We are in a golden age of science and at the extreme edge of astronomical discovery are the robotic eyes we now have to see deeper than ever into the cosmic abyss.

PHOTOS: ALMA: New Jewel of the Atacama Desert

Some of our planet's most powerful eyes are located in Chile, where a group of powerful observatories are constantly at work. Managed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a collaboration of 16 member states and based out of Germany, the ESO sites in Chile include Paranal Observatory (home to the The Very Large Telescope) and La Silla Observatory. The ESO is also a partner in the the awesome Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) that was inaugurated in 2013. ALMA is the biggest and most powerful observatory on the planet.

An aerial view of the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal Observatory. | ESO

And on Friday, I will be joined by DNews cameraman Alex Gerhard to fly to Chile to visit the ESO sites as part of the #MeetESO event that will see seven other international participants being given exclusive access to the telescopes and their observation sites high in the Atacama Desert. Why next week? Well, the transit of Mercury occurs on May 9 and we'll be there watching the celestial dance from a region that is, frankly, out of this world.

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Personally, I've seen many telescopes in my time, but like the other #MeetESO participants, this will be a trip of a lifetime. I've covered the incredible science from the ESO telescopes for Discovery News (and Discovery News alum Nicole Gugliucci even visited ALMA in 2013 - you can check out her adventures here), so I'm excited to not only see these monuments of human ingenuity up-close, but to also talk to the people who carry out the mind-blowing research. And there's a Mercury transit to boot - not bad!

Depending on internet connection availability, I will be checking in via Twitter (via @Discovery_Space and @astroengine), Instagram (@astroengine), Facebook (Discovery News) and there may be an opportunity to do a live Facebook feed via Science Channel. I will also be blogging here when possible. And there will of course be a series of DNews videos on the event. So keep an eye on all those locations when I fly to Santiago on Friday, May 6. Of course, if you have any questions, advice or requests, please let me know.

You can keep up to date with the #MeetESO schedule by checking the official website and by following the #MeetESO hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.

The antennae of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as seen at night on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is nearing completion after over 30 years of planning and collaborating among astronomers and engineers from several nations. The completed array will consist of 66 antennas and two supercomputers, called correlators, at the backend to collect the signals and make the array function as one large telescope.

On March 12th and 13th, 2013, over a hundred journalists descended upon the array along with politicians, scientists, engineers, and other VIPs to celebrate the official inauguration of the array and tour its facilities. I was there along with 11 other journalists from around North America as guests of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Overview of the telescope's technical capabilities, science goals, and history were given by (from left to right) Michael Thorburn, Head of the ALMA Department of Engineering, Pierre Cox, incoming ALMA director, Thijs de Graauw, current ALMA director, Al Wootten, ALMA Program Scientist for North America, and Ewine van Dishoeck, Professor at Leiden University and former ALMA board member.

The ALMA control room is the hub of activity at the "low site" or Operations Support Facility. From here, telescope operators manage and control all array operations and conduct observing runs. Astronomers who win time on the telescope through a merit-based proposal process do not actually travel to the site or control the telescope in real time. Instead, as with other radio interferometers, they prepare observing scripts based on what science they want to achieve, and their scripts are then scheduled and run by ALMA staff. The data is then made available to the astronomer for a proprietary period of one year, when it is then released to the public.

Everyone gets into the spirit of ALMA, which in Spanish actually means "soul," as an art contest was held for local children. Featured here are some of the submissions and several winners in the six to nine year old group.

54 of the final 66 antennas were at the "high site" or Array Operations Site, at an altitude of 16,500 feet. The 12-meter dishes are contributed by partners in Europe, North America, and East Asia, whereas several smaller, 7-meter dishes from East Asia make up a compact array in the center. The completed array will eventually have the capability of expansion by moving the antennas to different concrete "pads" spread around the Chajnantor Plateau. With a baseline, or distance between antennas, of up to 14 kilometers, ALMA will be able to obtain resolution ten times better than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Reporters were allowed a peek at the massive correlator behind glass in the second highest building in the world. The correlator is the computer that brings together signals from all the antennas so that the astronomer can make an image using the full array. We received a thorough explanation of its working from correlator engineer Alejandro Saez who has spent time constructing in in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the high site in Chile. The correlator has the processing power of 3 million laptops as it has to make calculations for up to 1,125 antenna pairs billions of times per second.

The antennas actually put on a show for us during our three hour tour of the high site, slewing, or moving, back and forth. These antennas are built for perfection, or as close to it as one can come. These sturdy, yet flexible machines must maintain a dish surface accuracy of the width of a human hair and pivot back and forth between a target source and calibrator source on the sky every ten seconds.

Taking a hundred or so journalists to a site at 16,500 feet (5000 meters) altitude is quite risky business. Everyone must pass a basic fitness exam to be cleared for access, though employees must endure a much more rigorous process involving a stress test and heart monitoring to work on site. A team of diligent paramedics were there to hand out oxygen bottles and check for signs of altitude sickness. Here, I got my pulse checked in an ambulance after running around like an excited child a bit too much.

The "front end" of a radio telescope is the place where radio light that is collected by the dish is received, amplified, and transferred to the next stage for digital processing. The large blue drum is a cryostat and holds the most sensitive electronics in the telescope at a cold 4 Kelvin using liquid helium. The silver circles are the actual windows into the feedhorms, the first stage where radio light passes into the front end. Don't think those metal plates are transparent? They are to the radio light that ALMA receives.

Just one of ten sets of electronics that can fit inside those blue drums are on display here. Various stages of the system are cooled to difference temperatures, and engineers needs to wear special gloves and shirts when handling these so that they do not impart a spark of static electricity that could ruin a sensitive (and expensive) piece of equipment. The superconducting receivers used by ALMA are state-of-the-art and were developed specifically for this purpose.

How do you move a giant antenna? You build a giant antenna mover. The on-site guests were treated to an amazing site when one of the two antenna crawlers rumbled down a huge dirt road to pick up one of the dishes that is still under testing. Otto and Lore, as the crawlers are named, have to pick up each 100-ton antenna and place them down on their pads with millimeter accuracy. They move the antennas from the Operations Support Facility up to the high site and back and will be used to change array configurations to change the telescopes resolving power.