ALMA opens its 'Eyes' wide and reveals its first image

ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array), the most complex ground based telescope in existence, is officially open to astronomers and has produced its first image. This comes after more than a decade of design and construction involving technological and scientific expertise from countries across four continents, including the UK. The project is technologically state-of-the-art, with numerous individual components from all over the globe having been brought together to make 'first science' possible. The scale of this achievement is demonstrated by the fact that the number of observing proposals on ALMA has outweighed availability nine times over already setting a record for a telescope. In return for the UK's investment in the project, UK scientists have access to ALMA through STFC's subscription to the European Southern Observatory and the project has seen the UK's technical capabilities and expertise strengthen both within academia and industry.

ALMA is a huge high-frequency observatory that will eventually comprise 66 individual telescopes that are combined electronically to simulate a telescope diameter of up to '6km more than a thousand times the diameter of a single individual telescope within the array. It reveals a view of the Universe that cannot be seen at all by visible-light and infrared telescopes. It observes OElight' emitted in the millimetre and submillimetre wavelength range, roughly one thousand times longer than visible-light wavelengths. Using these longer wavelengths allows astronomers to study extremely cold and visibly opaque objects in space -- such as the dense clouds of cosmic dust and gas from which stars and planets form -- as well as very distant objects from the early Universe.

"Even in this very early phase ALMA already outperforms all other submillimetre arrays. Reaching this milestone is a tribute to the impressive efforts of the many scientists and engineers in the ALMA partner regions around the world who made it possible," said Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO, the European partner in ALMA.

"I am not at all surprised to see the huge number of proposals to use ALMA which have been written by astronomers in the UK and throughout the world astronomical community. ALMA brings a completely new of the Universe and will revolutionise our understanding of our celestial origins. The excitement begins now!" said John Richer, UK Project Scientist for ALMA, based at the University of Cambridge.

UK involvement in ALMA includes STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, the University of Manchester and the University of Kent, all of whom played key roles in the design and construction of ALMA.

Science Minister David Willetts said, "The ALMA telescope is an incredibly impressive feat of science and engineering, and it's fantastic that the UK has played such a significant role in its design and construction. Our involvement has ensured our leading researchers have access to the most state-of-the-art observation technology, keeping us at the cutting edge of astronomy research."

John Richer said: "ALMA is an awe-inspiring piece of engineering: every aspect of it is state-of-the-art. For example, the antennas use innovative carbon fibre designs to keep their shapes precise to only a few microns, less than the width or a human hair, even in hostile weather conditions. The superconducting receivers have to amplify very high-frequency radio signals without adding too much noise. The central correlation computer has to process vast volumes of digital data from the receivers, a data rate that exceeds total internet traffic of the UK. And finally this all has to be done on a very remote site, deprived of oxygen due to its very '7,000-feet altitude."

Brian Ellison, UK Project Manager for ALMA said: "First science is a fantastic achievement for the project and also for UK scientists and technologists. The benefit to the UK is highly significant with the UK making major contributions to key ALMA infrastructure through the provision of services, hardware and software. What's more, the technological expertise gained from ALMA construction is already proving hugely valuable in other areas of application such as Earth observation and imaging".

The ALMA team has been busy testing the observatory's systems over the past few months, in preparation for the first round of scientific observations, known as Early Science. One outcome is the first image published from ALMA, albeit from what is still very much a growing telescope. Most of the observations used to create this image of the Antennae Galaxies were made using only twelve antennas < far fewer than will be used for the first science observations < and with the antennas much closer together. Both of these factors make the new image just a taste of what is to come. As the observatory grows, the sharpness, speed, and quality of its observations will increase dramatically as more antennas become available and the array grows in size.

Gary Fuller, Principal Investigator at the UK ALMA Regional Centre Node, based at The University of Manchester added: "Projects like ALMA require an enormous amount of patience - many of us have been working on this for more than a decade. There have been many obstacles to be overcome, but I've no doubt that it will all be worth it - it's great to see the first scientific observations beginning for astronomers from the UK and around the world."

ALMA could accept only about a hundred or so projects for this first nine-month phase of Early Science. Nevertheless, over the last few months, keen astronomers from around the world have submitted over 900 proposals for observations. The successful projects were selected by international peer review involving 50 of the world's leading astronomers.


Press Contacts

Lucy Stone
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
+44 (0)'""5 4456"7

Douglas Pierce-Price
+49 89 ""00 6759

Science Contacts

Brian Ellison
ALMA UK Project Manager
+44 (0)'""5 4467'9

John Richer
ALMA UK Project Scientist
+44 (0)'""" ""7"46

Gary Fuller
Principal Investigator UK ALMA Regional Centre Node
+44 (0)'6' "06 "65"

Further Information

University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge's mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. It admits the very best and brightest students, regardless of background, and offers one of the UK's most generous bursary schemes.

The University of Cambridge's reputation for excellence is known internationally and reflects the scholastic achievements of its academics and students, as well as the world-class original research carried out by its staff. Some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs occurred at the University, including the splitting of the atom, invention of the jet engine and the discoveries of stem cells, plate tectonics, pulsars and the structure of DNA. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, the University has nurtured some of history's greatest minds and has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other UK institution with over 80 laureates.

The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester, a member of the Russell Group, is the most popular university in the UK. It has "" academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. According to the results of the "008 Research Assessment Exercise, The University of Manchester is now one of the country's major research universities, rated third in the UK in terms of OEresearch power'. The University had an annual income of #788 million in "009/'0.


ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by '5 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.

At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light.

ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".


The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including: O in the UK; ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR. STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd. O overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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