At the End of the Earth, Seeking Clues to the Universe

Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array being installed, 16,597 feet above sea level

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Trucks stall on the road to this plateau 16,597 feet up in the Atacama Desert, where scientists are installing one of the world’s largest ground-based astronomical projects. Heads ache. Noses bleed. Dizziness overcomes the researchers toiling in the shadow of the Licancabur volcano.
“Then there’s what we call ‘jelly legs,’ ” said Diego García-Appadoo, a Spanish astronomer studying galaxy formation. “You feel shattered, as if you ran a marathon.”

Still, the same conditions that make the Atacama, Earth’s driest desert, so inhospitable make it beguiling for astronomy. In northern Chile, it is far from big cities, with little light pollution. Its arid climate prevents radio signals from being absorbed by water droplets. The altitude, as high as the Himalaya base camps for climbers preparing to scale Mount Everest, places astronomers closer to the heavens.

Opened last October, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA, will have spread 66 radio antennas near the spine of the Andes by the time it is completed next year. Drawing more than $1 billion in funding mainly from the United States, European countries and Japan, ALMA will help the oxygen-deprived scientists flocking to this region to study the origins of the universe.

The project also strengthens Chile’s position in the vanguard of astronomy. Observatories are already scattered throughout the Atacama, including the Cerro Paranal Observatory, where scientists discovered in 2010 the largest star observed to date, and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, which was founded in 1961 and endured Chile’s tumult of revolution and counterrevolution in the 1970s.

But ALMA opens a new stage for astronomy in Chile, which is favored by international research organizations for the stability of its economy and legal system. Like other radio telescopes, ALMA does not detect optical light but radio waves, allowing researchers to study parts of the universe that are dark, like the clouds of cold gas from which stars are formed.

With ALMA, astronomers hope to see where the first galaxies were formed, and perhaps even detect solar systems with the conditions to support life, like water-bearing planets. But the scientists here express caution about their chances of finding life elsewhere in the universe, explaining that such definitive proof is likely to remain elusive.

“We won’t be able to see life, but perhaps signatures of life,” said Thijs de Graauw, a Dutch astronomer who is ALMA’s director.

Still, scientists believe ALMA will make transformational leaps possible in the understanding of the universe, enabling a hunt for so-called cold gas tracers, the ashes of exploded stars from a time about a few hundred million years after the Big Bang that astronomers call “cosmic dawn.”……
Read more: www.nytimes.com

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