ALMA – the birth of a giant telescope

Milky Way over ALMA
Four of the first ALMA antennas under the Milky Way looking toward the centre of our galaxy
Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (

Why invent and invest?

But why invest so much money in astronomy and telescopes? If we look at astronomy and more generally at science only as a way to satisfy our curiosity, many people may ask: is it really so important now?

If we look at science and astronomy as a field that creates not only jobs for many researchers and engineers, but also supports investments in technologies – technologies we will later use in other fields – astronomy and science in general becomes a good way of investing in the future.

Many things we use in our everyday lives, from air conditioning and insulation to cell phone cameras, have been derived from space technologies. Likewise, ALMA will have some benefits for all of us. Kurz mentions that the most obvious application of the technologies developed for ALMA will be in the fields of radio science and telecommunications. Besides, he adds, there is no question that all of the money invested in ALMA eventually goes back into the world economy.

“There is some redistribution of the money. The partner countries are naturally interested in seeing as much of their investment as possible going back into their own economies,” he says. “However, none of the ALMA partners require that all of their contribution be spent in their own economy. There is undoubtedly some added economic return in the future as a result of the technological developments. However, because it is mostly indirect and unpredictable, quantifying the return is very speculative.”

Usual figures indicate that every dollar spent in science brings between two and a hundred dollars back into the economy – depending on the field. In 2008, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy (composed of professional astronomers, academia and industry) wrote: “Past economic analysis (provided by KPMG) and experience has shown that Canada receives a two-to-one direct return for every dollar invested in astronomy. The indirect return is as high as ten-to-one, since the knowledge gained working on astronomy projects leads to new business opportunities in sectors far removed from astronomy.”

It seems that beyond altruistic reasons, governments have very tangible reasons to invest in research and astronomy.

Millions of eyes looking in the same direction

That day, standing there next to the ALMA antennas at 5000m altitude, looking in the same direction the antennas were, with snow-capped volcanoes and the sand of the Atacama around, I knew the antennas could see through the dust towards the centre of our galaxy.

It was an awe-inspiring experience. In part because it’s a rare enough opportunity to stand so close to these giant instruments located in such remote places. But it was also the realisation that hundreds of people had worked so hard for so many years to achieve this moment – when dozens of antennas would look in the same direction and observe the Universe as one – that made it so special.

I remember feeling each antenna had hundreds of eyes – the eyes of all the anonymous people who had believed in this incredible machine when it was still only a dream and made it possible. It felt like with this telescope, built by so many countries, the planet suddenly opened countless eyes to the sky, all looking in the same direction to try and find answers to the eternal questions of our cosmic origin.

About Sandra Kropa
A Latvian radio journalist since 2004, Sandra has been hosting the popular daily science program “Zināmais nezinamajā” on Latvian Public Radio since 2005. She has covered many different science topics, including astronomy. In 2013 she travelled to Chile to cover the inauguration of the ALMA Observatory for the Latvian Public Radio and various science magazines in Latvia.

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