A massive new telescope that will unveil the faintest, most distant objects in our universe is officially inaugurated today, with great fanfare and anticipation from the world’s astronomical community.
Scientists gathered in the desolate Chilean Andes this week say the new Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array could revolutionize cosmology. It it is the largest, most complex and most ambitious telescope project in history.
ALMA, whose acronym means "soul" in Spanish, will uncover some of the most mysterious and yet most common phenomena in the cosmos. From its perch on the 16,400-foot Chajnantor Plateau, it will see the birth pangs of stars, the collision of cosmic crumbs that turn into planets, and possibly even the formation of moons around faraway worlds.
"This is much more than an astronomers’ observatory. ALMA will allow us to get deeper into this universe, but also to get deeper into our own nature, and our own lives," said the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera. "The native Chilean people that lived here since 10,000 years ago knew this from the beginning. In their native language, Chajnantor means ‘point of observation.’ … We know that Chile is a very small country, but with your help, in astronomy, we want to become a real giant."
Pinera led a delegation of luminaries who drove on winding unpaved roads, past grazing llamas and looming cactus, before traipsing through the soft gray dirt at ALMA’s Operations Support Facility.
A week prior to the ceremony, a shaman and other indigenous Andeans traveled to the array and blessed the telescope’s antennas. Even the astronauts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station joined in the celebration with a surprise message Wednesday. Along with future observatories, including the James Webb Space Telescope, ALMA "will enable the exploration of the universe with unprecedented power," said Chris Hadfield, who recently turned over the commander’s seat. "We congratulate the scientific communities of North America, and Europe and east Asia. …"Enjoy your new discoveries."
The ceremonies Wednesday capped 30 years of planning and a decade of construction. The U.S. spent $500 million on the ALMA project, making it the largest investment ever by the National Science Foundation in any facility in the world, according to Subra Suresh, the outgoing director of NSF. Along with its potential for groundbreaking new science, the technology behind ALMA will translate to countless new innovations we might not even imagine now, he said–just as the Apollo moon program set off new products that had nothing to do with the moon.