60 Minutes: Atacama ALMA Telescope, Femtoseconds & Life in Space?


60 Minutes: ALMA Telescope

Astronomers now have the chance to see more of space than ever before. Bob Simon reported for 60 Minutes about the new technology that allows humans to witness the births of planets and stars, thanks to an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert. ALMA stands for Atacama Large Millimeter-Sub Millimeter Array, and it’s the most powerful radio telescope in the world, decoding rays of light undetectable to the human eye.

$1.3 billion and 30 years in the making, ALMA is now here and is making some amazing discoveries in its infancy. This Chilean plateau provides a unique view of space. Its name, Chat-Non-Tor, means “place of departure,” and it provides a window to outer space, 16,500 feet up in the air. At night, you can see unbelievable brilliance from earth.


Otherworldly landscape and harsh terrain may not make it a popular spot to live, but it is a wonderful destination to gaze into space. There are 66 radio antennas assembled to form ALMA, an unprecedented enterprise in astronomy.

60 Minutes: Pierre Cox ALMA

60 Minutes: Atacama ALMA Telescope, Femtoseconds & Life in Space?

The ALMA telescope is a marvel of modern science in the heights of the Chilean desert, where scientists hope it will help us glimpse the beginning of time.

Pierre Cox, ALMA’s director, is responsible for coordinating the 19 countries who are collaborating in the project. He said that his job is easier than he thought, because everyone involved shared a common goal.


All the parts were shipped from around the world to a base camp at the foot of the mountain, where they were assembled and tested. Then they traveled up the mountain 17 miles on a customer transformer, traveling just a few miles per hour.

The project’s complexity and the altitude require a medical examination due to the effects of altitude on the body. “People react very differently,” Cox said. Some become talkative, while others do not speak. Even wildlife becomes scarce along the ascent.

60 Minutes: ALMA Altitude & Summit

60 Minutes visited ALMA in May, which is fall for the Southern hemisphere. Though the area is known as one of the driest places on earth, snow covered the ground. Simon compared the visual of the various satellites to extraterrestrial life. Though he and the 60 Minutes crew wore oxygen tanks at the summit, they found it challenging to speak, walk, breathe, or even think.

The antennas are movable and could eventually be spread over a span of 10 miles, giving us a detailed view of faraway objects. That means we can look back in time unlike ever before, possibly even getting back to the formation of the earliest galaxies, 13 billion years in the past.

Maybe this will give us some answers dating back to just after the Big Bang. Cox said that this is something we have never really had the ability to witness before. ALMA has one of the highest buildings in the world. Physicist Alison Peck explained that the command center is oxygenated so that those working there would be able to function and successfully assemble the supercomputer that puts it all together.

60 Minutes: ALMA Computing Power & Femtoseconds

The computing power is equivalent to three million laptops, and Cox said the computer has to be able to synchronize data from the various antennas into a few femtoseconds, a millionth of a billionth of a second. Though Hubble is higher in space, it is an optical telescope, which makes its capabilities different than ALMA.

As a radio telescope, ALMA observes objects that are radiating far away than the eye can see, giving us a vision into wavelengths and colors that the human eye could not detect. One image showed gas and dust in a galaxy, where it provides a scientific clue about the birth of stars and solar systems.

ALMA can see the birth and formation of stars and planets in the history of space. Stuart Corder showed off some of the visions so far, including a young star and planets forming around it. “You’re seeing the natal environment of planets,” he said. Ultimate questions include whether these planets will sustain and support life.

60 Minutes: ALMA Life in Space?

Glycolaldehyde, a prebiotic molecule that could sustain life, and the prospects for discovery are possibly unlimited. Even throughout history, Atcama has been a popular spot for astronomists. Eduardo Hardy, a Chilean physicist, showed us what used to be seen from this space. Greeks used stars, whereas Chile used dark patches to draw maps of outer space, creating a mythology around them.

Things are just getting started at Atcama, where ALMA is poised to be a center of discovery for whatever may be out there. Many more surprises are in store, and we could be looking back at the history of space and time. Will you be watching?


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