- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) — High atop a desert plain in the distant Chilean Andes, a new observatory operated in part by Charlottesville astronomers soon will let scientists see what previously could not be seen, witness the formation of galaxies, and better understand the nature of the universe.

Work is under way on the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, located in the District of San Pedro de Atacama. At 16,500 feet above sea level, it will be Earth’s highest-altitude, full-time observatory.

Targeted for completion in 2011, ALMA, as it’s known, will be the world’s largest, most sensitive radio telescope operating at millimeter wavelengths.

It also will be the world’s largest superconducting instrument because its receivers must be kept at temperatures near absolute zero.

ALMA “will see things that don’t radiate visible light,” said Charles Blue, spokesman for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville. “It will take a look at, really, the cold regions of the universe. These are optically dark, but they shine brightly in the millimeter portion of the spectrum.”

ALMA will be a single instrument made up of 64 high-precision antennas.

The telescope will pierce the darkness of space by receiving millimeter and submillimeter wavelength electromagnetic radiation, a portion of the spectrum more energetic than radio waves, yet less energetic than visible light.

It is a wavelength, largely undetectable on Earth, that scientists say holds the key to understanding planet and star formation, galactic evolution and the cosmos’ early history.

“It’s as if you had an eye which was sensitive to red, yellow and green, and all of a sudden you started to see blue,” said David Hogg, the observatory’s interim deputy director. “You’d have a different view of the world.”

The observatory is playing a key role in the $552 million venture, leading the telescope’s construction and operation for North America. A small delegation from the local facility attended a groundbreaking in Chile for the telescope, along with representatives of other partners in the project, including Canada and Europe.

Because the air at the telescope site is so thin, scientists and engineers will conduct operations from a compound at a more comfortable 9,500 feet above sea level.

Prototype antennas already are being tested, and ALMA’s initial observations could come as soon as 2007.

When up and running, ALMA should fill a gap in astronomers’ study of the electromagnetic spectrum, Mr. Hogg said.

“This range of wavelengths has only been beginning to be explored in the last decade,” he said. “Yet it is a region where, fortuitously, we expect galaxies to be very powerful emitters. … We hope that this instrument gives us a new ability to look at the galaxies forming in a way that we haven’t been able to see before.”

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