Astronomy in the extreme

Personal account of a journalist who had the opportunity – and the guts – to visit the facilities of the Alma observatory, located at 5,000 meters altitude, in Chile.Image

Imagine going to the second highest human construction in the world, at five thousand meters of altitude. If you do not know what that involves, I will tell you from experience: it is very cold (even if it is summer), there are strong winds that freeze your ear and the oxygen level in the air is half of what we are used in at sea level, making breathing a hard task. This means that a simple step looks like a race to your lungs.

It was under these conditions that I visited the Atacama Large Millimeter and Sub Millimeter Arrangement (Alma). To complete the scenario, the observatory is located at the high plateau of Chajnandor in Chile, in the middle of the Atacama desert — the driest place in the world!

The observatory is still under construction. But at the top of the plateau there are already 16 antennas that together with other 50 will form a radio telescope capable of seeing the universe colder, dark and distant zones. It is expected that by the end of 2013 all 66 ultra-precise millimetre/submillimetre-wave radio antennas will be working together as one big telescope, in an array that will stretch for up to 16 kilometres across the Chajnantor Plateau.

I visited the place with few Brazillian journalists invited and a series of protocols had to be follow during our way. Before we reached the top in a mini van, we had to stop at 2,900 meters to undergo a medical examination, which would give the nod to proceed (or not).

At the exam room, for our ‘reassurance’, a corkboard on the wall highlighted the following news: “23 years old British athlete dies of altitude sickness in Chile”. Strategically positioned, the material told a young woman winner of many awards for athletics had died in Atacama because of what the natives call ‘puna’. In other words it means ‘altitude sickness’, a pathological effect of high altitude caused by acute exposure to low oxygen pressure.

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Despite the impact of this information, everyone’s blood pressure remained at the limit to pass the test and be able to sign a macabre agreement in which (forgive me the pun) I gave my soul to Alma (witch acronym means both ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in Portuguese). By signing the two-page document, we journalists disclaimed any liability for the observatory concerning our eventual death, even by negligence of the staff working there.

“The altitude sickness is still understudied and you never know what can happen,” said our guide, Fabio Marchet, vice project manager for the Alma. “There is the risk of death, but many people just feel a malaise.” And in an attempt to calm us down, he continued: “Do not worry about the brain aneurysm, because we will be up there shortly.”

During the van ascent, we were constantly monitored with an oximeter, a small device that measures the oxygen level in the blood only by contact with the tip of your finger. All patients received oxygen bottles entitled to 42 sniffles and instruction not to fear to use them, especially if the oxygen level in the blood fell below 80%. I do not know if the equipment was working fine, but from 96% at the beginning of the path, my oxygen level dropped to 60%.Image

Despite several newtons of air less on my head because of the altitude, the feeling was an enormous pressure on my whole body. But I survived, with a persistent headache and a few milliliters less of blood that insisted on gushing from my nose.

At the support room, the only building next to the antennas, everyone seemed terminally ill working with oxygen backpacks attached to their back. The electronics engineer Alejandro Saenz, responsible for the supercomputer that controls the antennas of Alma, told me he is already familiarized with the bizar situation. After all he faces this routine since the first antenna was moved for the top of Chajnator in 2009.

“I have no fear and just got a little scared when I knew I could hurt my brain,” he responds in jest, as he did not care. “But the observatory provides the necessary infrastructure for the work to be safe and everyone here knows the risks of altitude. Until now my only problem was on my first day, when I felt tired and had a too strong headache, but after that your body gets used to it and starts to produce more hemoglobin to carry oxygen.”

After the experience, I began to wonder even more the people behind the equipment that make the great discoveries and the beautiful images of the universe we see. Not only the telescopes are pushed beyond the physical limits to do science.

*I was invited to visit the ESO’s facilities in January 2012. The stories I wrote during the trip can be read here (in Portuguese)

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