Massive Observatory Provides A Look Back
GUY RAZ, Host:
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: 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.
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: 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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.