The U.S. and European partners in the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) project have awarded contracts to U.S. and Italian firms, respectively, for two prototype antennas. ALMA is a planned telescope array, expected to consist of 64 millimeter-wave antennas with 12-meter diameter dishes. The array will be built at a high-altitude, extremely dry mountain site in Chile’s Atacama desert, and is scheduled to be completed sometime in this decade.
On February 22, 2000, Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) signed an approximately $6.2 million contract with Vertex Antenna Systems, of Santa Clara, Calif., for construction of one prototype ALMA antenna. AUI operates the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) for the National Science Foundation under a cooperative agreement. The European partners contracted with the consortium of European Industrial Engineering and Costamasnaga, of Mestre, Italy, on February 21, 2000, for the production of another prototype. (Mestre is located on the inland side of Venice.) The two antennas must meet identical specifications, but will inherently be of different designs. This will ensure that the best possible technologies are incorporated into the final production antennas. Only one of the designs will be selected for final production.
Several technical challenges must be met for the antennas to perform to ALMA specifications. Each antenna must have extremely high surface accuracy (25 micrometers, or one-third the diameter of a human hair, over the entire 12-meter diameter). This means that, when completed, the surface accuracy of the ALMA dishes will be 20 times greater than that of the Very Large Array (VLA) antennas, and about 50 times greater than dish antennas for communications or radar. The ALMA antennas must also have extremely high pointing accuracy (0.6 arcseconds).
An additional challenge is that the antennas, when installed at the ALMA site in Chile, will be exposed to the ravages of weather at 16,500 feet (5000 meters) elevation. All previous millimeter-wavelength antennas that meet such exacting specifications for surface accuracy and pointing accuracy have been housed within telescope enclosures.
The U.S. and European prototype antennas will be delivered to the NRAO VLA site, near Socorro, New Mexico, in October and November of 2001, respectively. Preparations for ALMA prototype testing are already underway at the VLA site. Three pads are being constructed for the antennas to rest on. An ALMA control room within the VLA control building is being established. About ten full-time ALMA staff will be involved in the testing. Additionally, ALMA project members from around the U.S. and the world will visit the VLA site to participate in the test program. The two prototype antennas will first be tested separately. Following that, the two will be linked together and tested as an interferometer.
Millimeter-wave astronomy is the study of the universe in the spectral region between what is traditionally considered radio waves and infrared radiation. In this realm, ALMA will study the structure of the early universe and the evolution of galaxies; gather crucial data on the formation of stars, protoplanetary disks, and planets; and provide new insights on the familiar objects of our own solar system.
ALMA is an international partnership between the United States (National Science Foundation) and Europe. European participants include the member states of the European Southern Observatory (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland), the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), the Max-Planck Gesellschaft (Germany), the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, the United Kingdom Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the Oficina de Ciencia Y Tecnologia/Instituto Geografico Nacional OCYT/IGN (Spain), and the Swedish Natural Science Research Council (NFR).
The project is currently in a Design and Development phase governed by a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Europe. It is hoped and expected that Japan will also join the project as a third equal partner. Negotiations are currently underway to add Canada to the United States team and Spain to the European team.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.