President hails new era for Chilean and world astronomy

This is Chile was in the Atacama on Wednesday as President Sebastiàn Piñera inaugurated ALMA, the world’s largest ground-based observatory.

As Chile’s Head of State gave the go-ahead to the control room of the Atacama Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on Wednesday, and 66 antennas swiveled skyward in unison, some of the scientists that looked on silently wept.

For a select few of the astronomers and engineers at the inauguration of ALMA, this journey began almost 30 years ago, when the largest ground based observatory ever conceived was merely a whispered idea.

ALMA Director Thijs de Graauw hailed the, “Countless hours of work by scientists and technicians in the ALMA community around the world.”

“ALMA is the most advanced millimeter/submillimeter telescope in existence, dwarfing anything else we had before” de Graauw continued. “Now we are eager for astronomers to exploit the full power of this amazing tool.”

President Piñera’s permission to activate the array was purely ceremonial of course. Many groundbreaking studies have already been conducted at ALMA: the imaging of the oldest galaxies ever seen, the discovery of sugar molecules in the cosmos, and our best ever look at planet birth, to name a few.

Many of these studies were conducted when ALMA was only 20 percent operational, and the consensus among ALMA scientists is that no one really knows what will come when ALMA’s full power is unleashed.

President Piñera has named 2013 as the “Year of Innovation” in Chile, and singled out ALMA as unquestionable proof of Chile’s commitment to the advancement of science.

“All those who are curious, all those who are driven by discovery, will always have the firm support of the Chilean government,” Piñera said to ALMA scientists and an audience of 500. “Chile may be a small country, but with your support we can be a true giant in terms of astronomy.”

“We want to take advantage of astronomy,” he went on, “not only in our support of those who seek to make new discoveries, but also in creating a strong astronomy tourism industry in this country because the amount of people around the world who are interested in learning about our infinite universe increases everyday.”

To learn more about ALMA, read Part 1 and Part 2 of This is Chile’s coverage of the inauguration event.

By Angus McNeice

The ALMA Partnership consists of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.