Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program: ALMA Day 1

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Friday, June 23, 2017

Welcome to the Atacama Desert! // All images: Astronomy: Alison Klesman

This will be a quick post for a couple of reasons – the main one being that tomorrow, we’re headed up to tour the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Array Operations Site (AOS) above 16,000 feet, and we’ve all been told to get a good night’s sleep to ensure we pass the physical required to go that high.

We landed in Calama yesterday afternoon and drove the rest of the way to San Pedro de Atacama, which is beautiful (if dry) and sunny. This morning, the ACEAP 2017 crew, along with two members from the 2016 expedition, Sian Proctor and David Lockett, visited two local schools to share outreach activities and watch how students here learn about science. I’d love to write much more than I have time to do so at the moment on the experience (perhaps a blog on the plane ride home, if I’m not comatose), but I had a wonderful time, and I certainly wasn't the only one. Both the students and the ambassadors clearly enjoyed the opportunity to engage with each other over the beauty and the wonder of the skies, despite any language barrier that might exist. It was utterly amazing to see the students so engaged in and curious about each activity. Personally, I greatly enjoyed seeing the hands-on approach to science taken in the classrooms here, especially among classes of younger students. 

One of our outreach activities was creating 'bottle rockets' that students could launch simply by squeezing a plastic bottle. Understandably, they were a pretty big hit.

After a busy morning, we headed up to the ALMA Operations Support Facility (OSF), located at a mere 10,000 feet or so above sea level. (As I type this from our hotel in San Pedro, we’re at 8,200 feet or so, so we’re well acclimated by now.) Following lunch, we took a tour of the OSF and enjoyed several presentations by ALMA staff, which highlighted the range of personnel and specialties covered here. We were also able to tour one of the labs and take part in an informal question-and-answer panel with several of the staff at once.

One of the day’s running themes was the fact that “proper” astronomers make up a very small percentage of the staff on site here, as ALMA is meant to be more of a service facility that delivers high-quality data to scientists, rather than making them come here and take that data themselves. We heard from and spoke with software engineers, array maintenance and operations personnel, operations astronomers, human resources managers, and more, all of whom proved (yet again) that a Ph.D. in astronomy is not necessary to make meaningful and powerful contributions to astronomy, science, and education.

The 'front end' of an ALMA receiver. Up next: what's inside.

I’d definitely love to expound much more on our experiences today, but it’s getting late and I’d definitely like to take that advice on getting a full night’s sleep. With luck (and a healthy blood pressure reading), I’ll be blogging about the ALMA high site tomorrow! 

The heart of ALMA: This is a component of Band 5, which covers 163–211 GHz.

Tags: aceap
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