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ALMA: Visit to an Alien World

13 Aug 2019, 14:45 UTC
ALMA: Visit to an Alien World
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

Standing at the high site of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is like standing on another world. Sandy gravel marks the rolling plain beneath an oddly blue sky. The air is thin and dry, with such little oxygen you have to wear an oxygen tank. Across the plain, brilliant white antenna dishes dot the landscape. They are nestled in a plateau surrounded by mountains. It looks more like the fictional desert planet of Dune than our own homeworld.

At 16,500 feet, ALMA is the highest radio telescope on the planet. The location of ALMA was chosen by the necessities of astrophysics and the happenstance of terrestrial geography. The primary mission of ALMA is to observe the cold and distant gas and dust of the cosmos. The kind of material that floats in interstellar space and huddles around young stars as they begin to form planetary systems. This gas and dust emits a faint light with wavelengths about a millimeter long. These wavelengths of radio and microwave light are absorbed by water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, so they can only be seen from space, or at high elevations where the air is thin and dry.

An ALMA dish against the ...

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