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Mon Aug 19, 2019, 07:23 PM

Astronomy ambassadors to Chile: ALMA radio telescope

Posted by Rob Pettengill in ASTRONOMY ESSENTIALS | HUMAN WORLD | August 17, 2019
Learn what it would be like to travel to Chile – sometimes called astronomy’s world capital – in this final report from Robert Pettengill with the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program. Thank you for your dispatches, Rob!

ALMA 40-foot (12-meter) antennas can cover an area up to 10 miles (16 km) across. Image via Rob Pettengill/NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These questions are as old as humankind. The search for answers impels many quests, for example, the painter Gauguin’s voyage to Tahiti … and astronomers to the remote Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes. That is the site of the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA), one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth.

The Array Operations Site (AOS) for ALMA is located at 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) of altitude. At that altitude, supplemental oxygen is required. Nearby in a more sheltered location – at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) – is the ALMA Operations Support Facility (OSF) in the Atacama Desert. OSF hosts the couple of hundred scientists, engineers, and staff needed to operate and maintain the telescope. The massive amount of data produced by ALMA requires reduction, archive, and distribution centers on four continents to deliver observational data to investigating scientists.

The dedicated staff at the OSF, along with the dozen or two essential personnel at AOS during the day, must cope with isolation and separation from family and comforts of home. Most commute from Santiago and face about a six-hour commute, including the two-hour flight. A common shift is eight work days and four days off. Staff with families far away may spend six months apart. Pride, intelligence, and sense of purpose shone in everyone we spoke with, from the director, Sean Dougherty, to the casino staff (casino is Chilean for cafeteria)!

All together, including the thousands needed at supporting locations, ALMA is a knowledge factory helping answer some of our species’ most profound questions. I visited there in late July and early August 2019 with the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program, aka ACEAP. The ACEAP 2019 cadre were thrilled to have the rare opportunity to stay overnight at the OSF and make the 45-minute trip for a two-hour stay at the AOS high site. In exchange we all are sharing our experiences.


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