Dr John Richer
Reader in Astrophysics, Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge

Presented by the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, and Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester.

Dr Adam Avison
Post Doctoral Research Assistant, University of Machester

Dr Rosie Bolton
Research Associate, Univesity of Cambridge

Dr Samuel George
Radio Astronomer, University of Cambridge

Exhibit blog

ALMA SSE imaging mosaic

A mosaic of all the “interferometered” people and objects at the ALMA Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition stand…....

Further reading

The planets, stars and the galaxies that fill our universe formed from cold clouds of gas and dust that are impenetrable to optical light. Our own solar system formed in a cloud like this about 4.5 billion years ago.

ALMA-2-32070 million light-years from Earth, the two spiral galaxies known as the Antennae Galaxies are colliding. Seen here in both images from the Hubble Space Telescope (visible light shown in blue) and at two different millimetre wavelengths from ALMA (shown in red and yellow). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO). Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

To study our cosmic origins, the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), the most complex radio telescope ever built, is currently taking shape in northern Chile.  It will make the first detailed images of the formation of new star and planetary systems in our galaxy, giving clues about the origin of the solar system. It will also provide a clear view of the distant universe, and help us understand how the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang.

How it works

ALMA is a technological wonder of our age.  It is sensitive enough to detect the very weak high-frequency radio signals from cold gas clouds and it can make images of the emission with sufficient detail to reveal the structure of the young galaxies and stars.  It relies upon state of the art technology in material science, digital electronics, computing and solid-state physics.

The telescope consists of 66 radio antennas which detect the faint signals from deep space by focusing the waves onto superconducting receivers.  The antennas are made of carbon fibre material to ensure they stay precisely in shape: the radio waves have a wavelength of less than 1mm, and the dishes must keep their shape to within 100,000th of a metre.  By combining the signals from the antennas, a telescope of effective size up to 10 miles in diameter is created.

The telescope is built on a 5,000m high plateau in the Andes to get above the water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere which blocks the faint radio signals.  It is hoped that ALMA will soon be making incredible new discoveries about how our solar system came into being and how the early universe evolved - and no doubt there will be unexpected discoveries along the way.


This video shows the scientists of this exhibit explaining their research.

This video shows the scientists of this exhibit explaining what its like to work in astronomy.


Lead image: A panoramic image of many of the ALMA antennas currently on site and observing on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert. Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)