UK celebrates completion of the most complex ground-based telescope ALMA
13 Mar 2013



Scientists across the UK are today proudly celebrating the monumental achievement of the completion of ALMA - the most complex ground-based telescope in existence.  The telescope is being officially opened during an inauguration ceremony in Chile.

ALMA satellites in Chile

​ALMA - Chile.

Credit: ESO
​Scientists across the UK are today proudly celebrating the monumental achievement of the completion of ALMA – the most complex ground-based telescope in existence. The telescope is being officially opened during an inauguration ceremony in Chile (14:30 GMT 13 March 2013) - the result of two decades of work from institutions all over the world, including in the UK.

ALMA is a high-frequency radio telescope made up of 66 individual antennas; these are combined to create a telescope with an effective diameter of up to 16 kilometres. It will show us never-before seen details, in the millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths it sees, about the birth of stars and planets, and of infant galaxies in the early Universe. It will also discover and measure the distribution of molecules – many essential for life – that form in the space between stars.

Hundreds of scientists, engineers and dignitaries from all over the world are gathering at the telescope’s remote location in the Chilean Andes to celebrate the completion of all major systems of the giant telescope and the formal transition from a construction project to a fully-fledged observatory. During construction UK industry has won contracts to the tune of 44 million Euros. 

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "This inauguration marks an incredible achievement for UK scientists and engineers, who have been instrumental in making ALMA's design and construction a success. Thanks to the UK's investment in the project our world-class researchers will be part of a major international collaboration and remain at the very forefront of astronomy."

ALMA has involved technical and scientific expertise from four continents. Individual components have been developed entirely separately in countries across the world including in the UK, and yet brought together and linked up seamlessly in a remote spot in the desert in Chile.

UK Project Manager Professor Brian Ellison from STFC’s RAL Space who will be at the ceremony, said:​ “The difficulty of constructing an instrument of the scale of ALMA, and that is located in a challenging environment, should not be underestimated and it is a testament to the vision, skill and perseverance of all those involved that not only is construction complete, but early operation is producing outstanding science. I am delighted and proud that the UK, through a variety of institutes and organisations participating at various stages of the project's development and construction, has made a large and very successful contribution to ALMA, both scientifically and technically”. 

Chief Executive of STFC Professor John Womersley added: “Today's inauguration of ALMA is a chance to celebrate an amazing achievement for scientists and engineers both in the UK and around the world. We have brought together high-tech components from four continents and linked them together 5000 metres above sea level in the Atacama Desert to form the most complex ground-based telescope ever built. The technological advances that were needed to make ALMA the huge success it’s already proving to be will also help to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation”.

The UK through the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Kent, the Technology Department and RAL Space both at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh has made a major contribution to ALMA in a number of different ways. 

The Technology Department at RAL has been responsible for the design, manufacture and delivery of the cryostats - or cooling systems - at the heart of each telescope, under the project management of Dr Anna Orlowska. Each cryostat weighs approximately half a ton and each keeps ten receivers at a stable temperature below -269C (less than 4 degrees above absolute zero). It is essential to keep the telescope at such cold temperatures for the very sensitive instruments to operate effectively.

RAL Space has hosted and operated Europe’s Front End Integration Centre (one of three in the world) where components crucial for the receivers on ALMA that detect the faint radio signals from space have been integrated and tested.

UK ATC has provided essential software for ALMA that scientists rely on both to make their proposals for using ALMA valid and when it comes to turning raw data taken from observations, into data cubes that can be used for science. The Observing Tool, as it is known, is also a key part of the system that ensures the observatory is operated as efficiently as possible to maximise scientific output.

Dr Alan Bridger who led the team at the UK ATC responsible for the software, said: "The ALMA Observing Tool is the result of a decade of hard work by a talented team drawn from across the globe, led from here in the UK and I am delighted that the fruits of their labour are finally enabling astronomers around the world to do fantastic science with this wonderful telescope".

Dr John Richer, who was the UK's Project Scientist for ALMA during its 12-year design and construction phase, commented: "The path to ALMA has not always been easy - nearly every aspect of the project has been challenging.  So it's rather wonderful to see ALMA working so well. The engineers and scientists who have worked on making ALMA a reality should be very proud: it is a great and unique scientific achievement that will transform our understanding of our place in the cosmos."

The University of Manchester also plays a key role in ALMA – they are home to the UK ALMA Regional Centre Node which offers support for both existing and potential ALMA scientists. Professor Gary Fuller, Principal Investigator at the UK ALMA Regional Centre Node, based at the University of Manchester said: "It has taken years of effort and ingenuity from a huge world-wide collaboration of scientists and engineers to bring this spectacular telescope into operation. The UK ARC Node is now looking forward to helping astronomers carry out world-leading science with ALMA including transforming our understanding of the processes of star formation across cosmic time."

More details of the ALMA inauguration will be in ESO’s press release that will appear here: 

Notes to editors

Details of a live feed of the inauguration can be found here: The stream of the day’s events will run from 14:30 GMT to around 16:00 GMT on 13 March.

Images and video

ESO images of ALMA​.

Additional images are available from the STFC Press Office if required.

The ALMA Time-lapse Compilation 2012
ALMA 2012 Antenna Relocation Compilation
2012 ALMA Video Compilation​

Interview opportunities

Many of the scientists quoted in the release and a number of others are available for interview. Some are currently in Chile but may still be contactable and there are plenty of scientists available in the UK. Please contact the STFC Press Office if you’d like to arrange to speak to someone.

In addition, the inauguration will be screened live to both the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Scientists will be available for interview at both sites. Please let us know if you would like to attend and we will give you full details.

UK contacts

Lucy Stone
Press Officer
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Tel: +44 (0)1235 445627

Out of hours number: +44 (0)7092 982664.

Brian Ellison
ALMA UK Project Manager

John Richer
ALMA UK Project Scientist
Tel: +44 (0)1223 337246

Gary Fuller
Principal Investigator UK ALMA Regional Centre Node
Tel: +44 (0)161 306 3653

Douglas Pierce-Price
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6759 

Richard Hook
ESO, Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Cell: +49 151 1537 3591

Further Information

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

UK involvement in ALMA includes STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, the University of Manchester and the University of Kent, all of whom played key roles in the design and construction of ALMA. More details on each of the institutions can be found below.

More detail about the work at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Details about the UK Astronomy Technology Centre contribution to ALMA​.

Further detail on the contribution from the University of Manchester​ which the world-famous Jodrell Bank Observatory is part of.

Read about the contribution from the University of Cambridge.


ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


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