Massive Observatory Provides A Look Back

Guy Raz interviews Alison Peck, deputy project scientist for ALMA — the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array project in Chile. ALMA is expected to be the world's biggest and most powerful observatory in the world.

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GUY RAZ, Host:

Astronomers hoping to build on the work carried out by those Nobel laureates now have a new tool to do just that. It's a powerful radio telescope located in a remote part of Chile's Atacama Desert. And it may help answer questions about the origins of our universe, about, well, how we got here.

Alison Peck is a scientist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. And she's been working with the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub Millimeter Array Project. It goes by the acronym ALMA.

Dr. Peck, welcome.

ALISON PECK: Thank you very much.

RAZ: Are we overstating the case by saying the telescope is going to go back to the beginning of the universe?

PECK: In fact, we're not. One of the most exciting things about the ALMA telescope is that we're looking at millimeter and submillimeter light. We're not looking at optical light. We can see things that are actually dark in the universe, things that appear dark to optical telescopes.

And what that means is when you look at a galaxy, for example, a spiral galaxy, you can see the spiral arms and they're beautiful and they're symmetric. But in between those there are dark areas and there are even dark clouds within those spiral arms. And this is what ALMA looks into.

We detect what's actually going on in those dark areas. So these are regions that it's never been possible to observe before. So from that we can learn how stars are actually born.

RAZ: Can you give me a sense of how far away some of these things are from Earth?

PECK: It's very difficult to describe distances when you get to this sort of scale. Rather than talking about light years or parsecs, we talk about the percent of the age of the universe. Because the further back we look, the closer to the beginning of the universe we get. And so we're going to be looking at sources that are at about 10 percent of the age of the universe.

RAZ: So you're basically looking back in time.

PECK: That's right. That's right.

RAZ: Incredible.

PECK: We can see the evolution of galaxies. We can see how galaxies are formed, how they evolve, and how they eventually turn into the kinds of galaxies that we see around us today.

RAZ: Alison, what do we want to know about the beginnings of the universe? What are we looking for?

PECK: There are a number of questions that need to be answered about the beginning of the universe. For example, how did galaxies form in the first place? What prompted this sort of aggregation of gas? Did that stars form first and then the galaxies come after? Or were they are giant clumps of gas that turned into galaxies, and then the stars were formed from this?

These are things that have been extremely difficult to investigate with existing technologies. And with the advent of ALMA, which has only recently become possible, we'll be able to look very closely at all of these things.

RAZ: I know that this might be a predictable or even silly question, but I have to ask. Will you be looking for life out there?

PECK: Absolutely. There are a number of ways that we can look for life in the universe. And in particular, in the areas of star formation that are close to us, we can look for amino acids, for example, which are detectable at the wavelengths that ALMA observes at. And we can look for the conditions that would support life. And we do this by looking at solar systems that are forming that may have planets within them, to determine what the atmospheres will be like there. This will be entirely new transformational science.

RAZ: Alison Peck, thank you.

PECK: Thank you very much for having me.

RAZ: Alison Peck is a scientist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. She's also deputy project scientist for the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array Project, known as ALMA. It's in Chile and it's expected to be the world's biggest and most powerful radio telescope.

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