ALMA

the world’s newest, largest and most complicated telescope is now officially open for astronomy. located high in the deserts of Chile, the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Milllimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) is made up of a series of interlinked antennas stretching across an ultra-arid plain 5000m above sea level. such conditions – and the array’s clever technology – allow it to observe light not seen by the human eye, something which will allow to peer into distant gas clouds, swirling cosmic dust and even the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy

so far, only 20 of the planned 66 antennas are operational, but ALMA’s first image shows what the telescope is capable of – imaging clouds of dense cold gas in the colliding Antennae Galaxies (aka NGC 4038 and 4039) 70 million light-years away. the image was created with just 12 antennas, which are built at a separate location then transported some 28km to the site in the remote Chajnantor plateau on special crawlers equipped with oxygen for the drivers

“ALMA is an awe-inspiring piece of engineering," says John Richer, a project scientist with ALMA UK. “Every aspect of it is state-of-the-art. For example, the antennas use innovative carbon fibre designs to keep their shapes precise to only a few microns, less than the width or a human hair, even in hostile weather conditions. The superconducting receivers have to amplify very high-frequency radio signals without adding too much noise. The central correlation computer has to process vast volumes of digital data from the receivers, a data rate that exceeds total internet traffic of the UK. And finally this all has to be done on a very remote site, deprived of oxygen due to its very 17,000-feet altitude.”