Scientists elated ALMA in full swing

International project on Chilean plateau peers into origins of cosmos

by Atsuko Kawaguchi


Japanese astronomers are in high spirits now that the state-of-the-art ALMA radio telescope, built under a multinational project in the Andean highlands, has commenced full operations to explore deep cosmic mysteries.

“ALMA has realized my dream of three decades,” said Masahiko Hayashi, director general of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, referring to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

The international partnership has created a better telescope than Japan could have built alone, he said.

Shinya Komugi, a researcher at the Japanese observatory who has been working in Chile since 2010, was thrilled to join the ambitious project from an early stage. While acknowledging that it can be difficult to communicate with colleagues who come from around the world, Komugi said the multinational environment results in a wide breadth of views.

Among the research staff, English is commonly used as the primary means of communication.

Shinichiro Asayama, another researcher from Japan, stressed the importance of never shying away from voicing his thoughts, even if his command of English is a bit limited.

“If I remain silent, nobody would know I am there,” he said. “It is very exciting that I can expand my knowledge by learning from the best and brightest astronomers brought together under the project.”

At the heart of the international project is the ALMA radio telescope, built on the Atacama Plateau at an altitude of around 5,000 meters.

The telescope, the largest and most advanced of its kind in the world, started full-fledged operation in March. It is made up of 66 antennas that combine to capture radio waves from outer space.

“Astronomers and engineers worldwide have come together to build ALMA, an observatory that harnesses the efforts of many nations in order to produce transformational science,” said Al Wootten, a researcher at the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

ALMA embodies a fusion of three projects that were initially envisioned separately in Japan, Europe and the United States. The European and American sides agreed in 1999 to work together and Japan joined the partnership in the early 2000s.

The telescope enables researchers to explore such mysteries as the origin of life and the formation of planets by providing a glimpse of how the universe looked billions of years ago, through radio waves from the far corners of outer space.

Construction of the telescope started in 2003. The total cost was approximately $1.4 billion (¥142 billion).

The Atacama Plateau is suited for astronomical observation because of the thin atmosphere, but people working up there are exposed to the risk of altitude sickness. This is why the telescope is controlled remotely by researchers stationed at an operations center located at an altitude of 2,900 meters.

Japan has played a major role in building the telescope, manufacturing around a quarter of its 66 antennas.

Norio Kaifu, an honorary professor at the Japanese astronomical observatory, hailed Japan’s contribution to the ALMA project as a milestone and predicted it will serve as a model for future international cooperation. The project also provides a good stage for young Japanese researchers, he noted.

“Japan has tackled a difficult engineering challenge,” he said, “No doubt that this was a huge gamble.”