There’s plenty of good science going on under the bone-dry skies of northern Chile in the Atacama Desert. In this poetic short video, Jonathan de Villiers takes a look at ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, perhaps the greatest and most promising telescope on Earth. Decades in the making, this immense and ambitious telescope has finally come online in the past couple of years, and it already has a handful of startling images and discoveries to its credit.
ALMA will eventually consist of 66 twelve-meter-wide millimeter-wave antennae that can act as a single high-resolution telescope. The antennae detect millimeter waves, essentially shorter and more energetic versions of microwaves, emitted by dust and molecules around newly-formed stars in our galaxy. They can also see infrared light from the first stars and galaxies in the universe, light that has stretched into longer wavelengths by the expansion of the space itself.
The telescope sits on a plateau at an altitude of 16,000 feet above sea level, which places it above more than half the Earth’s atmosphere. In a sense, ALMA is halfway to space.
ALMA is an English acronym. But in Spanish, alma means soul, which de Villiers says is appropriate:
… as it feeds some part of the human soul and its desire to know more, to understand this incredible universe that we live in: how did the stars form, how do planets form, how will our Sun and its planets evolve… these questions go to the heart of what people often look up at the night sky and wonder about.