ALMA: Searching For Stars On The Edge Of The Earth

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on April 15 2012 4:02 PM

I arrive at the secretive ALMA observatory in Chile's northern frontier immediately following a weeks-long torrent of rain that swamped the "driest place on earth," blanketing the Andean peaks in white and coating the land in electric-green desert shrub.

The closest village to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, a sleepy desert outpost known as Toconao, was flooded as the Loa River overran a dam. Houses were literally washed away in the rains -- the result of the desert region's most violent "altiplanic winter" in decades.

Ironically, the altiplanic winter, aka the "Bolivian winter," strikes this region each year during the southern hemisphere's summer. At this time -- from January to February, generally -- clouds from Amazonian Bolivia bring humidity and cover to the Andes, replacing the clear skies characteristic of the Atacama Desert and the ALMA facility.

As I drive to ALMA from the oasis of San Pedro, the rain clouds have passed, leaving in their wake a blinding desert sun, opportunistic undergrowth, and an abundance of wildlife.

Like everyone else who enters this sequestered land of scientific secrecy, I must first view a safety video in the clinical waiting room at the entry gate as truck drivers flow in and out for mandatory alcohol tests. From the gate, it's another 20 minutes' drive up to the base camp in a curtained-off van. It's silent, save the cumbia villera music on the radio.

Andes Mountain High

Below the snowcapped Andean peaks, the base camp sits at a comfortable 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) above sea level. As I walk around the administrative building, all outside lights are pointed down to the ground so as to avoid disturbing the glowing web of stars that flicker in the Atacama night.

ALMA Education and Public Outreach Officer William Garnier, my guide at the facility, hands me a hard hat and yellow booties and ushers me down to North America's Vertex Assembly Hangar, one of three facilities where mechanics assemble the antennas once they've arrived at the closest ports of Antofagasta and Mejillones.

The $1 billion international astronomy facility is a partnership among Europe, North America, and East Asia, in cooperation with the Republic of Chile -- roughly 20 nations are participating in the massive project.

The groundbreaking facility is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, or ESO; in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation, in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada and the National Science Council of Taiwan; and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, in partnership with the Academia Sinica of Taiwan. The Joint ALMA Observatory, or JAO, provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning, and operation of the facility.

North America is responsible for 25 of the total 66 antennas, which together operate like a hypothetical giant telescope.

Surreal Sights

Site Production Manager Bill Johnson points to "Antenna 21" in the assembly hangar and says the main components come from Texas and Germany and arrive with 60 percent of the wiring already installed. His team hopes to have the final antenna here in May and finish all the work for the U.S. team by August.

Collectively, the three international camps have 28 antennas at the 5,000-meter (16,404-foot) Array Operations Site, or AOS -- although, as we stand at the Vertex facility, a 28-wheel transporter brings one back down the mountain.

The sight is surreal: a 100-ton antenna resting on a 230-ton remote-controlled transporter crawling down an Andean slope at 10 kilometers an hour (6.2 mph). The floating white saucer on the edge of the hill won't arrive for another 30 minutes, but the image reminds me of the speculation swirling around this enigmatic place.

The closed-off ALMA facility continues to be a source of gossip for the people of the Atacama region, and indeed the world. Many are certain the facility was created to look for life on other planets.

"It inspires people to understand where we are in the universe," says Adele Plunkett, who's working on Commissioning and Science Verification at ALMA.

Putting It All Together

ALMA is a massive puzzle, and no one working on the project could tell you with certainty how it all works. Each team specializes in its own area and, together, this international group works in staggered shifts to keep ALMA running 24 hours a day.

"You sit in the control room and you can hear five different languages in 20 minutes," Plunkett says. "That's why I love astronomy. It brings people together from different nations, and there's so much collaboration."

ALMA "opened its eyes" in October for the first phase of "Early Science," which includes 112 projects.

"Early Science covers the range of topics that ALMA wants to address, like the very first origins of the universe, looking at early stages of star formations, and looking at the galaxy," Plunkett says.

The scientists have decorated the halls of the main office building in base camp with mind-boggling graphs on the Early Science findings, which share an equal amount of wall space with potty-humor printouts.

Nearby are the two camps that house a few hundred employees with recreation rooms, dining halls, a movie theater, and -- as this is still Chile -- two busy soccer fields.

"Up to around 400 or so people live here at any given time, which makes it equivalent to some of the towns in the area," Plunkett notes. "It's funny because it's like this little astronomical city."

Breathtaking, In Every Sense Of The Word

I meet Garnier again the next morning in San Pedro, and he takes me for a mandatory medical check at base camp where I must release ALMA of all liability should I suffer from any altitude-related sicknesses. I'm checked again on the road up as we pass rows of cactus and prancing vicuñas between 3,000 and 4,000 meters (9,842 and 13,123 feet). We also spot a pace of wild donkeys that's taken up home along the road to AOS.

As we venture further up the wide and surprisingly gradual mountain road -- designed to accommodate the massive antenna transporter -- Lascar Volcano steams in the distance. All the facilities at ALMA were designed to withstand the worst of Mother Nature, though any ash from the nearby volcanoes would likely blow over into Argentina and Bolivia.

Each 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), Garnier checks in with the guards over the radio. "If I don't," he says, "they'll come looking for us."

By the time we reach the top at 5,000 meters, my stomach feels tight and my brain slow. Garnier speaks about the ALMA Correlator -- about how it has four quadrants that each operates 16 antennas from a climate-controlled room. About how it was designed especially for ALMA and is the fastest calculator in the world. He reiterates that ALMA is the world's largest and most expensive ground-based astronomy project.

"We love superlatives here -- can you tell?" he jokes. But jokes temporarily go over my head. About all I can do is stare straight ahead in a daze and walk in slow motion. I feel incredibly dumb.

There could be as many as 100 people working at this altitude at any given time, but no one is allowed to stay longer than six to eight hours. Many engineers choose to work with oxygen tanks to stay more alert.

We leave the control room and step out into a Martian landscape of red-brown dirt. A butterfly flutters past, and Garnier quips, "Look, there's life at 5,000 meters."

I'm reminded that I am, in fact, still on Earth.

So Many Questions, So Few Answers

The Atacama region is truly unusual, with the perfect collection of elements to make it attractive to the world's top scientists.

For millimeter wavelength astronomy, it's important to be on a dry site because any water vapor in the air affects the light that's coming through the atmosphere and received by the telescope. Garnier explains that the altiplano of the Atacama Desert is unique because there is very little water vapor in the air and the high altitude creates a shorter distance of atmosphere that the light has to pass through before it arrives at the telescope.

Quite simply, it's high and dry.

We're standing on the Chajnantor Plateau. The name Chajnantor, which predates the ALMA project, means "place of departure" in the local Kunza language.

Each $6 million antenna on the altiplanic field rotates 360 degrees around and 90 degrees up and down to troll the sky in hopes of answering some of humanity's biggest questions. But this is a search that's been going on for millennia.

The indigenous Atacameño people were famous for scouring the dark spots of the Milky Way for the answers to life's questions -- a search similar to what is happening at ALMA today. "Alma," after all, means "soul."

Back in the comfort of the Explora lodge in San Pedro, I meet Garnier for dinner and he describes how he and a group of others at ALMA decided to collect stories from elders in the villages neighboring Toconao and San Pedro. This ethno-astronomy project is now three years in the making, but for a while it seemed like it would never get off the ground. In one village, Garnier says the locals summoned a shaman to decide whether to pass on the knowledge. But with the shaman's blessing, the team of scientists enlisted the younger generation to go out and probe their elders for local knowledge of astronomy to document it before it's lost to the sky.

The ALMA facility opens the door to unexplored frontiers, and it's only just beginning to supply answers to questions that millennia of indigenous populations and cutting-edge observatories have been unable to provide.

The questions are as old as the stars, but the answers could come any minute.

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