Ten years after it began operating, ALMA hopes to continue contributing to science and the development of humanity over the next decade. It will now have a new supercomputer that will allow it to capture better images of space and improve the performance of the observatory.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) is celebrating its tenth anniversary this Monday, March 13. In this context, those working at the observatory uphold the idea that to continue contributing to the scientific and astronomical development of humanity, their main challenge over the next decade is to adapt to technological progress. On this occasion, they have announced the incorporation of a new supercomputer capable of processing images of the skies with greater clarity than the one currently being used. This will allow them to make further progress towards discovering the origins of the universe and planetary systems, as well as the search for suitable conditions for life in space.
To commemorate ten years of ALMA, the observatory has organized an event to which different authorities have been invited, among them Science Minister Maisa Rojas. There will be a cocktail reception for guests, a tour of the facilities in the Atacama and a press event where the astronomical complex’s antennas will be baptized.
Alejandro Sáez, an electronics engineer who works as technical leader for the ALMA correlator group, has worked at the observatory almost since its inception, collaborating on different projects and findings. He comments that the discoveries that have impacted him the most at the observatory have been the images of the formation of protoplanetary systems and the first records of black holes in history, work on which he collaborated. He explains that the new ALMA supercomputer is a purpose-built, custom-made correlator that only works in the context of astronomical exploration. The engineer states that their current processor technology has become obsolete and that with this new “brain”, as they call it at the observatory, work will be sped up and the quality of observations will improve.
“For example, in old videogames, you saw the colors really distinctly; there were no intermediate tones. By contrast, with this new processor, you will see many more intermediate tones. This means that you’ll be able to see more details of the image you’re observing, which is really important to be able to detect, for example, chemical components that are in the atmosphere of other radio-sources,” Alejandro Sáez explains.
Alejandro also addresses the challenges for ALMA regarding the improvement of its electronics equipment, adding: “wanting to make that change also implies a challenge from the point of view of satisfying the demand for scientific data. It’s not as easy as coming and saying: OK, let’s stop the telescope, give it an upgrade and resume observations. I don’t think the scientific community is willing to lose observation hours as a result of this upgrade. So reconciling the need to increase the capacity of ALMA with the current demand that exists is a really important challenge.”
ALMA is the most powerful radio telescope in the world. It is currently made up of 66 antennas distributed throughout the area of the Chajnantor plain in the Andes Mountains, some of which are kilometers apart. Scientists from around the world work on this astronomical program operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s National Institute of Natural Sciences (NINS), among others.
David Fernández, the observatory’s integral graphic designer, highlights the findings made by the telescope system. He states that ALMA is a place where new knowledge is generated, describing his work experience as very “rewarding” and “inspiring”. He also affirms that: “Chile is a leader due to its geography and the characteristics it has for astronomy; it’s a leader in astronomy. I think that ALMA, being a place that is right at the forefront in its field, is very well positioned.”
The cyberattack suffered by their web portal and some of their operating systems stopped observations for more than a month. However, all of its operations are now active, and improvements to the processor are expected to increase the quality of the telescope’s operation. Chile will thus continue to be central to exploring the skies to provide the knowledge of the future.
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