Posted on Nov. 26: All eyes on ALMA

By Shelly Easton , November 26, 2003

    Christine Wilson
McMaster astronomer Christine Wilson wants to see what others don't.

To do that, she needs high-tech tools such as a complex telescope that uses radio waves to clearly uncover cold gases and dust between stars  research that will help her learn more about the universe.

The McMaster astrophysicist's ability to conduct research on how stars, planets and galaxies formed received a boost today with the announcement of a $7.9 million investment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Wilson is the Canadian project scientist for the $550 million (US) international ALMA project, considered the most important development in radio astronomy in this decade. ALMA will be the highest altitude, full-time ground observatory in the world.

This investment in ALMA is very important for the Canadian astronomy community, said Wilson. Not only will it help with infrastructure costs, such as buildings and access roads on the site in Chile, but it will also allow us to help develop the software for translating the raw data from ALMA into the images that scientists analyze.

ALMA will be a single instrument made up of an array of 64 radio antennas (each 12 metres in diameter) that will work together as one telescope to study millimetre and submillimetre radio waves from space. The antennas can be repositioned so that the telescope can function as a giant zoom lens. The antennas must be kept cool and dry so the lab' for this research is Chile's Atacama Desert, a flat area located 5,000 metres above sea level in the Andes that hasn't had rain in years.

ALMA is a bilateral partnership between North America and Europe involving 15 countries. The project is led in North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and in Europe by the European Southern Observatory. Canada's involvement in ALMA is funded by the National Research Council of Canada and this new CFI grant that will be administered by the University of Calgary.

Scientists broke ground on the site of the array earlier this year. The first scientific observations are expected to occur in 2007 and the project is scheduled to be complete by 2012.

Mamdouh Shoukri, vice-president research & international affairs, said McMaster's researchers continue to be recognized at an international level because they are world leaders in their fields.

Christine's involvement as the Canadian project scientist for the ALMA project speaks volumes to the quality of her work and her reputation in the international community, he said, noting that McMaster is involved in two of the nine CFI international projects.