The Atacama Large Millimeter Array and Millimeter Astronomy #SpaceSaturday

After hydrogen, the two most common elements in the galaxy are carbon and oxygen, in the form carbon monoxide. Forged in the heart of large stars, CO has “strong spectral lines in the millimeter wavelength of radio light.” This means that tracking CO can form a sort of map of some cosmic structures. That’s millimeter astronomy. And in South America, in the northeast of Chile, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, the astronomers of the the Atacama Large Millimeter Array are masters of millimeter astronomy. Here’s more from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory:

It was decided that the Plateau of Chajnantor in Northern Chile would be the best location for the array. Located at an elevation of 5,000 meters in one of the driest parts of the world, Chajnantor also had an excellent view of the dense central region of the Milky Way. However, the cost of building an array in such a remote location threatened to end the project in the 1990s. At the same time, the European Southern Observatory had plans for its own radio telescope array in Chile, the Large Southern Array (LSA). Through a series of social and political challenges too complex to detail here, the two projects eventually merged to become the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Construction began on ALMA in 2003. Built in collaboration with the ESO, Chile, and Japan, it was inaugurated in March 2013. The first high-resolution image ALMA released was one of HL Tauri, a young star with a protoplanetary disk. The image was more detailed than the best Hubble images, showing a banded structure with gaps suggesting the formation of planets around the star. It was clear the discoveries of ALMA would be revolutionary.

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