Canada Contributes to One of Astronomy’s Most Powerful Telescopes (March 13, 2013)

On March 13 2013, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the largest ground-based astronomical project in the world, will be inaugurated, celebrating ALMA’s transition from a construction project to a full-fledged observatory. The inauguration ceremony will take place at ALMA’s Operations Support Facility (OSF), 34 km from San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile.

What is ALMA?
Located at the highest and driest desert in the world (northern Chile), ALMA is one of astronomy’s most powerful telescopes, providing unprecedented imaging capabilities and sensitivity many orders of magnitude greater than anything of its kind today.

The Observatory is comprised of an array of 66 radio antennas that work together as one telescope to study millimetre- and submillimetre-wavelength light from space. These wavelengths, which cross the critical boundary between infrared and microwave radiation, hold the key to understanding such processes as the formation of planets, stars, galaxies, and of organic and other molecules in space.

Canada’s Contributions
Ten years ago the National Research Council of Canada agreed to design, develop and deliver seventy-three state-of-the-art receivers, operating at 3mm (100 GHz), as the major part of Canada’s contribution to the C$1.4B international ALMA radio telescope.

NRC Herzberg in Victoria, BC, is one of the few facilities in the world with expertise in superconducting detector technology for millimetre waves. These receivers are of paramount importance to the project because they are used for science applications but also for final adjustment of the antenna surfaces and for regular calibration of the array during operations.

“The receivers contributed by Canada play a critical role in the operation of ALMA. They are expected to lead directly to many discoveries ranging from images of ‘nearby’ planets, stars and gas clouds to the detection of the most distant objects in the Universe – galaxies in the early stages of their formation. They also serve as ‘work horses’ as they are used for all sorts of tests and calibrations of the system,” notes ALMA Deputy Director Lewis Ball.

The University of Calgary and McMaster University received awards from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to fund Canada’s share of the general site infrastructure costs Canadian programmers and astronomers at these universities also contributed to developing specialized code to allow astronomers to acquire and process ALMA data.

Can Canadian Astronomers access ALMA?
ALMA observing time is shared between all the participating countries. Canadian astronomers have access to North America’s 37.5% share of ALMA observing time. Astronomers have to submit a proposal to obtain observing time.

Canadian Industry Participation
Several Canadian companies provided significant contributions to NRC’s multimillion-dollar receiver program, including Nanowave Technologies of Etobicoke, ON, for the construction of the detector assemblies and the cryogenic low noise amplifiers; Daniels Electronics of Victoria, BC, for materials management and mechanical integrations; and K-Tec Industry and Prototype Equipment Design of British Columbia for providing high precision micro-machined parts. “We believe that the (cryogenic low noise amplifier) technology licensed from NRC could open up new markets for commercial and defence radar and satellite communications” says Dr. Justin Miller, President of Nanowave Technologies.

TeraXion of Quebec City, QC, won the multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory to provide the laser system at the heart of the ALMA signal network between the antennas and supercomputers at the 5,000 m high Array Operations Site on the Chajnantor plateau.

Making a Difference
Astronomers from around the world will use these Canadian-made receivers to explore in unmatched detail the evolution of cold gas and dust throughout the Universe. Early observations with the first on line receivers provided new scientific insights and Canadian Project Scientist Christine Wilson of McMaster University comments, “I found it incredibly exciting that the first image published from ALMA used data from the Canadian-built 3mm receivers. The comparison of the new ALMA image with my measurements from a decade ago was absolutely stunning – ALMA did more in 3 hours of observing than we were able to do in 100 hours.”

The Partnership
The Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.

What’s Next
Canada’s construction contributions were completed with the delivery of Band 3. Final construction of the ALMA array continues through this calendar year. As of 1 January 2014, ALMA will be considered to be fully completed and in operations, with a focus on commissioning its extensive set of capabilities. A tripartite agreement for operations is currently under development.

Media Relations
National Research Council of Canada

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