Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011
ALMA is the cutting edge of astronomy. Currently being built on the breathless heights of the Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, it will consist of 66 12-metre radio telescopes all operating together to perceive detail smaller and fainter than has ever been possible before.
I was hoping that at some point during my time in Chile, I’d get a chance to visit the observatory. The chance came much sooner than expected – a trip was arranged as part of a meeting in Chile of all the fellows from ESO’s headquarters in both Germany and here. We all travelled up to the north, spending a night in San Pedro de Atacama before heading up to Chajnantor the next day.
It was my third visit to San Pedro. It was strange to be back again, six years after I first arrived there half way through my epic journey around South America. The small dusty town has changed quite a lot since then, with power 24 hours, and cash machines that work. In 2005 I’d had to borrow money to get a bus to Calama to get money out.
On the day of the visit, we drove from San Pedro to the ALMA base camp, near the village of Toconao at 2900m above sea level. We had medical tests here, to check blood pressure and oxygenation, before heading on up to the heights. I knew from previous trips to high altitude that I was probably going to feel spaced out and confused, and it turned out as I expected; I felt a little bit out of body by the time we got up to 5100m, hardly able to understand what people said to me and only capable of shuffling slowly across the plateau from the main building to the antennae.
My oxygen-deprived memories are very hazy but I think it was awesome. The array is not complete and only about a third of the eventual number of antennae have been installed so far, but it looked incredibly futuristic with all of the dishes strung out across the barren desert plateau. I staggered around and took lots of photos, and occasionally took shots of oxygen from the canisters we’d all been given.