Chile’s 66 Eyes to the Night Sky

by Ashley Wu

At 5,000 meters altitude, in the midst of a woozy, oxygen-scarce haze, it is easy to mistake the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama Desert for a scene out of Star Wars.

Here, massive, white titanium antennas from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project are scattered across the plateau like robots stationed for intergalactic war. Thousands of years ago, Atacameño tribes native to this land passed on ancient legends about the beginning of the universe. Now, astronomers and engineers are building ALMA with an ambitious goal: find definitive evidence for the cosmic origins of life.

To complete work on the $1.3 billion project by 2013, they are working around the clock to finish construction of 66 radio antennas. Though the number may seem high, it makes ALMA scientists’ work more feasible.

“Considering the wavelength of the kind of molecular radiation we’re looking for, if we only built one antenna, its diameter would have to be 1,000 kilometers,” explained associate astronomer Kartik Sheth as he scribbled equations on a whiteboard. Sheth, a member of the North American team at ALMA, works in the observation room, where astronomers—outnumbered five-to-one by computer monitors—are constantly swiveling from screen to screen.

In addition to the North American contingent, the other two largest teams are those of Europe and Japan. Established as an international collaboration between these three groups, ALMA exists on the basis of cooperation, with the share of antennas built by each group determining the amount of observation time they receive. Though technically a scientific project, ALMA is first and foremost a political agreement.

“International cooperation in any other area is almost never this smooth. The more fundamental the question, the more expansive the project, and the more international cooperation you will see,” said Juan Cortez, a Chilean science operations astronomer at ALMA.

In the ALMA observation room, international rapport comes easily. The scientists speak English in every accent imaginable, Germans joke with the Japanese, and everyone eats lunch together. But 50 yards north of the observation room, geopolitical-based boundaries emerge between the various antenna assembly camps. High, corrugated metal walls separate the European camp from the American and Japanese camps on either side.

The first grumblings of dissatisfaction came in 2009. Over half of the American antennas had already been assembled, but the Europeans had yet to start construction of their first antenna. It became clear that the international cooperation that defined the observation room was nowhere to be found in the operation camp.

Chilean contract workers who do most of the on site antenna assembly have serious criticisms of the process. Although all the antennas are made to the same specifications and serve the same purpose, they differ slightly in design and appearance. “There is no shared technology between nations at the building stage and every group insists on using manufacturers from their own country,” said Sifredo Vargas, a Chilean mechanical engineer working for the European team. When the goal is to construct antennas capable of  capturing wavelengths never observed by man before, this kind of lack of cooperation seems downright illogical.

“Making these complex antennas is not like taking a hammer to a nail. But each team is trying to make its own antennas, almost like a secret. “Why?” added Vargas’ coworker, Pierre Chapus.

Chapus hypothesizes that another cause of the European’s slow progress is poor organization.

“The mentality of the European office was, ‘We know we have a problem with this aluminum part. Let’s just send it to Chile to see if they can work with it.’ But they don’t seem to remember that we are in the middle of the desert here; there is no factory to call for new parts,” said Chapus.

Back in the observation room, ALMA astronomers are positive that the project will soon be able to piece together a unified picture of the cosmic atmosphere. But even when working together to pursue scientific truth, the slow and frustrating process of building ALMA antennas is not enough to bring the international community together in productive cooperation.

ASHLEY WU ’15 is in Morse College. Contact her at