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ALMA Inauguration Heralds New Era of Discovery

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Wed Mar 13, 2013 6:37 pm via: ESO
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Revolutionary telescope will enable unprecedented views of the cosmos

Today, in a remote part of the Chilean Andes, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), was inaugurated at an official ceremony. This event marks the completion of all the major systems of the giant telescope and the formal transition from a construction project to a fully fledged observatory. ALMA is a partnership between Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array

ALMA’s three international partners today welcomed more than 500 people to the ALMA Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert to celebrate the success of the project. The guest of honour was the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

Among the distinguished guests at the celebration were Karlheinz Töchterle, Federal Minister of Science and Research (Austria), Petr Fiala, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports (the Czech Republic), Nuno Crato, Minister of Education and Science (Portugal), Roger Genet, General Director of Research and Innovation (France), Nora van der Wenden, Director for Research and Science Policy (the Netherlands), Bruno Moor, Head of the Division for International Cooperation in Research and Innovation (Switzerland), Beatriz Barbuy representing Brazil, Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, and ambassadors to Chile from Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, said: “One of our many natural resources is Chile’s spectacular night sky. I believe that science has been a vital contributor to the development of Chile in recent years. I am very proud of our international collaborations in astronomy, of which ALMA is the latest, and biggest outcome.”

At the ceremony, which was broadcast live on the internet, representatives of ALMA’s international partners were also present: ESO’s Director General, Tim de Zeeuw, the Director of the USA’s National Science Foundation Subra Suresh, and the Senior Vice Minister of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Teru Fukui, along with the Director of ALMA Thijs de Graauw. ALMA executives, personnel and representatives of the neighbouring communities also attended the event.

Thijs de Graauw, expressed his expectations for ALMA. “Thanks to the efforts and countless hours of work by scientists and technicians in the ALMA community around the world, ALMA has already shown that it’s the most advanced millimetre/submillimetre telescope in existence, dwarfing anything else we had before. We are eager for astronomers to exploit the full power of this amazing tool.”

“This is an example of the great achievements that become possible when institutions and nations pool their efforts, which is a strategy that underlies ESO’s entire programme” added Tim de Zeeuw. “Applying this on a global scale by partnering up in such a great project, we are giving the astronomers in the ESO Member States the possibility of doing the unique research that is only possible with ALMA.”

Tomorrow, a selected group of guests will have the opportunity to visit the telescope at the Array Operations Site, located 5000 metres above sea level. The assembly of ALMA’s antennas was recently completed, with the last batch of seven out of the final total of 66 antennas currently being tested before entering into service. The telescope has already provided unprecedented views of the cosmos with only a portion of its full array.

Able to observe the Universe by detecting light that is invisible to the human eye, ALMA will show us never-before-seen details about the birth of stars, infant galaxies in the early Universe, and planets coalescing around distant suns. It also will discover and measure the distribution of molecules — many essential for life — that form in the space between the stars.

The observatory was conceived as three separate projects in Europe, USA and Japan in the 1980s, and merged to one in the 1990s. Construction started in 2003. The total construction cost of ALMA is approximately US$ 1.4 billion, of which ESO’s share is 37.5%.

The antennas of the ALMA array, fifty-four 12-metre and twelve smaller 7-metre dish antennas, work together as a single telescope. Each antenna collects radiation coming from space and focuses it onto a receiver. The signals from the antennas are then brought together and processed by a specialised supercomputer: the ALMA correlator. The 66 ALMA antennas can be arranged in different configurations, where the maximum distance between antennas can vary from 150 metres to 16 kilometres.

On the occasion of the inauguration the ALMA partners, ESO, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan are releasing a 16-minute movie called ALMA — In Search of Our Cosmic Origins, a photo book, a booklet about ethno-astronomy in the area and two brochures about the project and the contributions of the executives. All materials are available for download in electronic form at the links below.

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