For Astronomers, New Machine Has Soul

The United States and Europe have breathed life into plans to build a giant new astronomical observatory in Chile that could be fully operational in 2009. On Thursday, science officials from both continents signed an agreement in Washington, D.C., laying out a 3-year plan for the design and development of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

Located 5000 meters above sea level in the dry Chajnantor plain in the Chilean Andes (Science, 19 March, p. 1836), ALMA (Spanish for "soul") will consist of 64 12-meter dishes, observing the universe at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. This relatively unexplored part of the electromagnetic spectrum, between infrared and radio waves, opens a window into some of the coolest and most dusty objects in the universe, such as the clouds of dust and gas that form planetary systems, as well as into the farthest reaches of space and time.

"It will take us back to the era where we see galaxies form," says Bob Dickman, coordinator of the Radio Astronomy Unit at the National Science Foundation. "No matter how distant the first galaxies are, ALMA will detect them," adds Ewine van Dishoeck of Leiden University in the Netherlands. And by combining signals from multiple dishes--a technique called interferometry--the array will create images of these distant objects as sharp as a single imaginary dish as large as the 10-kilometer-wide array could produce.

Major partners in the agreement are the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the European Southern Observatory, an intergovernmental organization with eight member states. Research institutes in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom will also take part, while Japan is expected to join later. Europe will chip in $16 million and the U.S. $26 million for the first phase of design and development, but the observatory's total cost is expected to exceed $400 million.