Three miles above the sea, in the driest desert on earth, stands the world’s most powerful telescope.
Like an eye the size of Manhattan Island, it is able to peer into the furthest corners of the universe, detecting new-born planets as they emerge from gaseous cocoons and mysterious black holes that swallow stars.
In the sun-scorched region of Antofagasta in northern Chile, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA as the observatory is more commonly known, has had its breakthrough of the year.
Its super-strength antennas, which collectively map distant parts of the universe, have detected the molecules that gave rise to life on earth floating in a dust cloud around a distant solar system.
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Known as “methyl cyanide,” the molecules found by a team of Harvard astronomers contain the vital nitrogen atom that enables organic molecules like sugars to transform into amino acids — the strands of protein in which human DNA is encoded.
Seen as the raw ingredients for life, the finding not only indicates that other parts of the universe may be fertile plains in which life may flourish, but demonstrates the vast leaps in human knowledge made possible through scientific collaboration. Just a few years ago, such a discovery would have been impossible.
“We are collecting information now in a way that wasn’t possible before,” Giorgio Siringo, an Italian scientist who works at ALMA’s base camp, told the Miami Herald.
“Science projects that would have needed years of time to be done using other radio telescopes can now be done in a few hours at ALMA.”
Journeying to Almatraz
Costing more than $1 billion to build and involving a partnership of institutes from three continents, ALMA scientists were tasked with designing a telescope strong enough to pick up the relics of radiation from the dawn of time.
Had they stuck with convention, this would have involved building a single antenna with a dish stretching 10 miles across — a logistically impossible task given that it would have needed to be positioned at an elevation two-thirds of the height of Mount Everest.
So, instead, they built a fleet of smaller dishes known as an “array.” With each one weighing more than 100 tons, transporter vehicles were designed to maneuver them into different positions. Once aligned, they created the effect of a single, giant telescope able to capture light that had traveled for more than 10 billion years.
Nicknamed Almatraz for its hard-to-reach location, the observatory’s Chajnantor Plateau location, is not a place for the faint of heart.
To get here, you have to pass a medical test which one in five fails. There’s a disclosure to sign, accepting the risk of death, before an ascent rising from an altitude of 9,800 to 16,400 feet in under 40 minutes.
It isn’t just the sharp decrease in oxygen that makes this expedition potentially hazardous; it’s the rapid rate at which the change occurs. Fatalities have occurred following blackouts while driving and vehicles are closely monitored along the route, with the requirement to call into base camp with coordinates every few miles.
But the extreme conditions don’t stop wildlife from thriving. Camelids known as vicuñas graze on spiny vegetation while pockets of green and yellow moss speckle the landscape.
The prickly outlines of candelabro cacti, a species of cactus able to reach heights of 18 feet, are illuminated by the sun and as the road flattens out the pelt of an Andean fox is virtually camouflaged against a scattering of rust-colored rocks.
A Lunar Landscape
Once out on the Chajnantor Plateau, the image is one of contrasts: 21st century technology in an environment that hasn’t changed for thousands of years, a crater-laden crust that resembles the surface of the moon more than it does the Atacama Desert and dazzling snow in a region that gets the second highest level of solar irradiation in the world.
With half of the oxygen available at sea level, the experience is literally breath-taking. It hits immediately. Walking a few steps feels like wading through a muddy swamp as a wave of exhaustion takes hold. Setting up a tripod becomes a strenuous affair and with wind-chill in an already freezing environment, minus 9 degrees Celsius temperatures feel more like minus 20.
But the fatigue abates when a supply of enriched oxygen begins flowing into the nose from tubes connected to a portable canister. Carried in a bag that’s worn on the back like scuba diving apparatus, this is the lifeline that enables engineers to perform critical maintenance in an environment that would otherwise prove lethal.
At night, when the position of the antennas have been synchronised, an avalanche of information collides with the bleached white dishes in the form of long-wave light.
Invisible to the naked eye, these tiny particles — known by scientists at photons — provide unique insights into the vapors, gases and clouds that are suspended in space.
Like fragments of an ancient time capsule, they contain vital clues about the molecules encountered on their epic journey to earth that may be unraveled by astronomers using a process known as astrospectroscopy.
It took only 22 minutes for enough particles of light to be captured by ALMA’s antennas to enable Karin Oberg, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University, to detect methyl cyanide around star “MWC 480,” 455 light years from earth.
For Oberg, it was the speed of the results that was the biggest surprise: “At first, I thought it was too good to be true,” she told the Herald. “As I analyzed the data more carefully over the time span of a few weeks, I slowly became convinced that the signal was real. So there were two weeks of increasing excitement leading up to a very happy day when I could confidently share the results with my collaborators.”
The results have given weight to theories that life may currently be, or one day be able to, flourish outside of Earth.
A Universe Teeming With Life?
Abraham Loeb, director of Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation, says sophisticated life could exist beyond the Milky Way.
“It is quite possible that the universe is teeming with intelligent life,” he told the Herald. But proving this would be another thing: “The signals produced by extra-terrestrial civilizations like our own are extremely faint and difficult to detect across vast cosmic distances. Even a nuclear war near the nearest star would not be detectable by our best current telescopes,” he said.
For others, the question is less about if extra-terrestrial life could exist and more about when it may happen.
Evanthia Hatziminaoglou, an astronomer at the Munich-based European Southern Observatory, told the Herald that the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe is “quite high” but said two things needed to be considered:
“First, what you call life, and also, how short-lived life is compared to the life of a planet or a star. So, even if there is life, the possibility of two civilizations coexisting in time is really small.”
Putting the longevity of the human race in relation to the age of the planet, if earth were a year old, humans would have been around for the last 1.4 seconds. When the history of the universe is factored in, humans have been around for less than a blink of the eye in the lifespan of the universe.
In a country which is still coming to terms with the aftermath of General Augustus Pinochet’s dictatorship, which saw more than 40,000 detained or tortured, and where 14% of the population still lives below the poverty line, the scientific achievements made at ALMA demonstrate the powerful potential of this developing Andean country.
Beneath the cobalt sky of the Chajnantor Plateau, the prospect of life springing forth in a galaxy far from Earth presents an alternative lens through which to view mankind’s place in history.
At a time when social media enables the image of the self to be magnified on a scale not seen before, ALMA’s discovery is as much a lesson in perspective as it is a scientific breakthrough.
“It’s good to be reminded every now and then,” Hadziminaglaou says, “that we are just one among many.”
BY THE NUMBERS
The Atacama Long Millimeter Array (ALMA) is the world's most powerful observatory for studying the universe. It's designed to spot some of the most distant, ancient galaxies ever seen, and to probe the areas around young stars for planets in the process of forming.
• 5000 meters above sea level
• 66 radio antennas
• 40 feet in diameter each
• 100 tons each receiver dish
• 9 miles away a golf ball can be seen
• $1.3 billion construction cost split between North America, Europe and East Asia
• $500 million contributed by the U.S. taxpayers
• 0 rainfall Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest place on earth