Humanity's most complex ground-based astronomy observatory, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), has officially opened for astronomers at its 16,500-foot high desert plateau in northern Chile.
Thousands of scientists from around the world competed to be the first few researchers to explore some of the darkest, coldest, farthest, and most hidden secrets of the cosmos with this new astronomical tool. One of the projects chosen for ALMA Early Science observations was that of David Wilner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
Wilner said, "My team hunts for the building blocks of solar systems, and ALMA is uniquely equipped to spot them."
His team's target is AU Microscopii, a star 33 light-years away that is only about 50 million years old. "We will use ALMA to image the 'birth ring' of planetesimals that we believe orbits this young star. Only with ALMA can we hope to discover clumps in these dusty asteroid belts, which can be the markers of unseen planets," said Wilner.
Wilner and his team will share their data with a European team who also requested ALMA observations of this nearby, dust-ringed star.
For the start of Early Science, around one third of ALMA's eventual 66 radio telescopes will make up the growing array. Even while still under construction, ALMA has become the best telescope of its kind -- a fact that was apparently well known to the astronomers who requested to observe with it.
Considering the limited number of hours allocated to this first phase of science, ALMA could only take about a hundred projects. "We were stunned when we received over nine hundred requests from all over the world!" said Lewis Ball, ALMA Deputy Director and ALMA Chief of Staff at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). "No other telescope on ground or in space has ever had this magnitude of over-demand." The successful projects were chosen based on their scientific value, their regional diversity, and also their relevance to ALMA's major science goals.
"The 'M' in ALMA stands for 'millimeter/submillimeter' waves, because ALMA views the Universe in these long wavelengths of light, much longer than the optical light we see with our eyes," said Alison Peck, an NRAO astronomer serving as ALMA Deputy Project Scientist during construction. "With millimeter and submillimeter waves, we can watch planet formation, investigate astrochemistry, and detect the light that is finally reaching us from the Universe's earliest galaxies. ALMA's first projects will flex the telescope's capabilities in all of these fields and many, many more."
During its Early Science observations, ALMA will continue its construction phase in the Chilean Andes, high on the remote Chajnantor Plain in the harsh Atacama Desert. By 2013, ALMA will be an up to 11-mile-wide array of 66 ultra-precision millimeter/submillimeter wave radio telescopes working together as one and built by ALMA's multinational partners in North America, East Asia, and Europe.
This release is being issued jointly with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.