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Now THAT’S a big truck!

July 30, 2007

Suppose you want to build a really big telescope – weighing, oh, 120 tonnes to do sub-millimetre wavelength radio astronomy.  And despite its weight, you’ve got to handle it carefully, because you want to build it with 20-micron precision.  And what the heck, why not build 25 of them (maybe eventually twice that many) and make them into an array?  And since sub-millimetre radiation is absorbed by water, you’ll need to put the array someplace dry, at maybe 5000 metres altitude, like the Acatama desert in Chile.  You could call it the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or “ALMA”, for short.

Side note #1:  The Atacama is one of the few places on Earth that tempt me to travel outside the United States.
Side note #2: Now I have Tom Lehrer’s song, Alma running in my head.

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well
Once you picked her up on your antenna
You’d never be free of her spell

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine
There were three famous ones whom she married
And God knows how many between…

Of course, power is a problem because only heavy diesel equipment can lift anything that heavy, and diesel engines aren’t fond of high altitudes. And because you’ve got to lift these things and set them down ever so gently (to say nothing of running them up a long road), you’ll need a custom-built buggy, like one of these. 

Well actually, two of these, because they’re building two of them to meet the construction schedule for the array.  But what are they going to do with them when the array is built?  Offer tourist rides?  The U-shaped monstrosity isn’t exactly built for speed.  (See update for more on this)

A practical question: The telescopes will be “set down on a concrete pad.”  How the heck do you mix concrete at “about half the cruising altitude of a 747”?  That’s up in oxygen-bottle territory, hardly conducive to heavy construction.

Once the array is in place, there will be a problem getting the public’s attention for the discoveries it will make.  Radio astronomy doesn’t produce quite the kind of pictures that the Hubble telescope does – but it plays an equally important role in assembling the puzzle.  A lot of science is like that; not really flashy, but…

UPDATE: Science Daily has a much more detailed article about the truck and the observatory that makes for interesting reading :-)   Apparently they plan to be able to physically reconfigure the array during its useful life, using these two trucks.  So the trucks are part of the long-term, incredibly ambitious project.

Categories: Science & Technology
  1. July 31, 2007 at 21:46 | #1

    “Alma, tell us!
    All other women are jealous …”

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