Since Hans Lipperhey built his first cheap telescope in his own workshop, telescopes became larger, and also more expensive. Sometimes, rich businessmen provided the money that was needed for the construction of big telescopes. Or universities worked together to build an astronomical observatory for common use, like the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.
But a big observatory like ALMA is too expensive for a university. It’s even too expensive for a country. The total cost of ALMA was about 1.4 billion dollars. It could only be built by many countries together. ALMA is a truly international project.
In the 1990’s, three groups of astronomers had plans for a big observatory to study millimeter waves from the Universe. The first group was in the United States. Their project was called the MMA (MilliMeter Array). The second group was in Europe, where many countries were already working together in the European Southern Observatory (ESO). They had plans for the LSA (Large Southern Array). The third group was in Japan; they wanted to build the LMSA (Large Millimeter Submillimeter Array).
Of course, it made a lot of sense to work together. The Americans and the Europeans signed an agreement on 25 February 2003. A year and a half later, on 14 September 2004, Japan also decided to join the international project. The new name for the observatory was ALMA: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. A beautiful name: ‘alma’ is the Spanish word for ‘soul’.
If you take a close look at photos of ALMA, you will see that there are three different types of antennas. 25 antennas were built in the United States. 25 others in Europe. And 16 antennas (four big and twelve smaller ones) are Japanese. So everyone helped to build ALMA.
Meanwhile, Canada and Taiwan also joined the ALMA project. So it’s really a collaboration between North America, Europe and East Asia. And everyone worked closely together with Chile, of course. After all, is in Chile where ALMA is located.
In 2009, the first completed antenna was transported to the observatory, at 5,000 meters above sea level. In September 2011, with only about a quarter of the antennas in operation, ALMA made its first science observations. And on 13 March 2013, the observatory was officially ‘opened’, by the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera. You can imagine what a big party that was, with people from all over the world: Americans, Europeans, Asians and Chileans. Some participants were so happy they had to cry!