March 13, 2023 #ChileDiverse

After a Decade of Exploring the Skies, ALMA Will Introduce a New "Brain"

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Credit: A. Duro/ESO

After 10 years of operations, ALMA expects to continue contributing to science and human development in the next decade, this time with a new supercomputer that will allow it to capture better images from space and improve the observatory's performance.

This Monday, March 13, the Atacama Milimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope is celebrating its tenth anniversary. In this context, the observatory maintains the idea that in order to continue contributing to the scientific and astronomical development of humanity, its main challenge for the next decade is to adapt to technological advances. On this occasion, they have announced the incorporation of a new supercomputer capable of processing images of the heavens with greater clarity than they currently have. This will allow further progress in the discovery of the origins of the universe and planetary systems, as well as the search for conditions suitable for life in space.

To commemorate ALMA's 10th anniversary, the observatory has organized an event where different authorities have been invited, among them the Minister of Science Maisa Rojas. It is expected that there will be a cocktail for the guests, a tour of the facilities in Atacama and a press point where the antennas of the astronomical complex will be baptized.

Alejandro Sáez, an electrical engineer who works as technical leader for the ALMA correlator group, has worked at the observatory almost since its beginnings, collaborating in different projects and findings. According to him, the discoveries that have had the greatest impact on him at the observatory have been the images of the formation of protoplanetary systems and the first records in the history of black holes, where he collaborated in the work. He explains that the new ALMA supercomputer is a correlator that has a specific purpose, tailor-made and only works in the context of astronomical explorations. The engineer comments that the current processor technology they have is obsolete and that with this new "brain", as they call it at the observatory, the work will be speeded up and the quality of the observations will be improved.


"For example, before, in the old video games you could see the colors super marked, there were no intermediate shades. However, with this new processor you will have many more intermediate shades. This means that you will be able to see more details of the image you are observing, which is extremely relevant to be able to detect, for example, chemical components that are in the atmospheres of other radio sources", explained Alejandro Sáez.

Alejandro also addressed the challenges ALMA faces in upgrading its electronic equipment, adding that: "wanting to make this change also implies a challenge from the point of view of satisfying the demand for scientific data. It is not so trivial to arrive and say: ok we are going to stop the telescope, upgrade it and resume observations. I don't think the scientific community is willing to lose hours of observing time because of this upgrade. So reconciling the need to increase ALMA's capacity with the current demand is a very important challenge".

ALMA is the most powerful radio telescope in the world. It is currently composed of 66 antennas spread across the Chajnantor Plateau in the Andes Mountains, some of which are kilometers apart. Scientists from different parts of the world work in this astronomical program operated and financed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the National Science Foundation of the United States (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan (NINS), among others.

Credit: ALMA - EHT Collaboration

For his part, the observatory's integral graphic designer, David Fernández, highlights the findings made by the telescope system. He assures that ALMA is a place where new knowledge is generated, describing his work experience as very "gratifying" and "inspiring". He also affirms that: "Chile is a leader because of its geography and the characteristics it has for astronomy, it is a leader in astronomy. I believe that ALMAN being a place that is at the forefront in this field positions it very well".

The cyber-attack suffered by the web portal and some operating systems last year, halted observations for more than a month. However, today it has all its operations active and it is expected that the improvements in the processor will increase the quality of the telescope's operation. In this way, Chile will continue to be a central axis in the exploration of the heavens for the knowledge of the future.




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