Bringing ALMA to life

— Rainer Mauersberger

The 13th of March saw the official inauguration of the ALMA telescope, an array of eventually 66 antennas which will explore the sky in the millimeter and submillimeter range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unlike an optical telescope, ALMA will mostly see the colder components of our Universe, namely the material out of which galaxies, stars and planets form. The motto of ALMA is “Exploring our Cosmic Universe” and it is going to be used by astronomers from all the world and with a very different background. Although not all antennas are installed at the 5000 m high Chajnantor plateau, ALMA is already routinely delivering scientific data.

The ALMA antennas

About 400 VIP visitors and journalists from all the countries that participate in ALMA (from the USA and Canada, European countries to Japan and also Chile) met at the 3000m high ALMA basecamp to listen to speeches by politicians, scientists and administrators and to see the ALMA antennas move. As a scientist who is involved in the construction of ALMA, I happened to be there that day. It was an unusual sight to see people in suits and ties in the middle of the desert. At that time of the year there still can be thunderstorms due to the “Altiplanic winter”, but we had luck and the weather was just perfect. After the inauguration and a lunch, all these VIPs and journalists had the possibility to see the sites where our antennas are assembled and tested, the gigantic antenna transporter and also our control room from where all observations are coordinated.

In the control room

Journalists and other VIPs, always tend to ask similar questions: Whether ALMA can detect life in Space, whether there will be a Nobel prize etc. This time, there were some surprises to me. Among the VIPs I had the pleasure to talk to in the control room were the Portuguese minister for Education and Science, Nuno Crato, and Anne Glover. Ann Glover is the Chief Scientific advisor to Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission. I first explained to them what we have been doing the last couple of years to build up ALMA, about our first observations, the way we are coordinating our work among people from the different ALMA partners, and I was prepared to hear questions like the ones I mentioned above.

The first surprise came from Nuno Crato. He asked me details about the calibration of our data and how we can ensure that the relative positions of our antennas are always known to a fraction of a wavelength. I explained it to him, but could not conceal my surprise and remarked with a smile that for a politician he is remarkably well informed. Nuno Crata laughed and confessed that he himself had been a science professor before becoming a politician.

Then it was Ann Glover’s turn to ask a question: “Now after you and your international colleagues have made ALMA happen”, she asked me, “don’t you have a feeling that you as scientists can achieve everything?”. I had to take a deep breath since I was not prepared for this type of question. “She must know that even with a budget of a bit more than 1 billion Euros and an excellent team, there are limits of what can be achieved”, was my first thought. It took a couple of seconds until I ordered my thoughts and understood why she asked that question. And this is what I answered her:

“ALMA is not only the most ambitious ground based observatory in the world, it is also the first large scientific project where the partners and the money come from many countries in three continents. None of the partners dominates the project, and each partner brings different expertise and has their own idea how a project should be managed. Despite of these different cultural and political backgrounds, we made ALMA work. Some of the most urgent questions mankind is facing, such as for example climate change, will also have to rely on broad international collaboration and scientific expertise, but even more than the ALMA project on diplomacy and people who can trust each other. ALMA has shown that this is possible, and maybe this is one of the foremost achievements of this observatory.”

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