ALMA: Eyes on the Heavens
The largest-ever astronomical project, ALMA, is a herculean cooperation between three continents--North America, Europe, and East Asia--to build and network 66 radio antennas at 16,500 feet altitude in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The expansive radio telescope array, completed in 2013, is capable of scanning wavelengths that have seldom been explored. It searches the heavens for clues about the origins of the Universe.
I stood alone in that Alice in Wonderland garden of high-science, surrounded by ALMA’s ginormous mechanical mushrooms, shuddering from cold and giddy from the rarified air. In the crystalline pre-dawn hours of a moonless night I watched antennas effortlessly pirouette, their silhouettes defined by a boisterous field of distant suns and galaxies. The light whistle of wind, blowing over the breach of the Chajnantor Plateau, smothered the faint hum of the antennas’ impossibly quiet magnetic motors to eerie effect. The dishes danced together in homage to the night sky, sometimes swinging about quickly, other times slowly, intently tracking distant curiosities.
I thought, remember this moment, Dave. You’re not likely to see anything like this again.