From Chalmers University of Technology: “Receivers from Chalmers will image the distant universe”

Chalmers University of Technology

Receivers in the cryostat: ESO/P. Yagoubov

Each of the 66 telescopes at Alma has now been equipped with Chalmers receivers.

From March 1, 2018, when the world’s most powerful telescope will target the most distant universe it is equipped with new receivers that have been developed and produced at Chalmers University. The extremely sensitive instruments also provide new opportunities to search for water in space and in our solar system.

“Being the best in the world is part of our daily life. There are simply no other options if you wish to participate on this level, “says Victor Belitsky, professor and leader of the Research Group for Advanced Receiver Development (GARD) at Chalmers.

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

The ALMA telescope consists of 66 dish antennas located 5000 meters above sea level in Chile on a high plateau in the Andes. The dishes work linked together as one telescope and can make far sharper observations than individual radio telescopes can do.

Each of the 66 antennas has several receivers for observation at different wavelengths. The Chalmers receivers now being used allow observations of light with a wavelength of between 1.4 and 1.8 millimeters – known as Alma’s Band 5. This is microwave radiation, which can be compared with visible light whose longest wavelengths are around 740 nanometres (less than a thousandth of a millimetre).

“At these frequencies we can observe cold parts of the universe. For example, regions where stars and planets are formed are of great interest. When ALMA’s dishes work together, you get significantly higher resolution than you can do with current optical telescopes, “says Victor Belitsky, whose research group is part of Onsala Space Observatory at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment.

  • The frequencies that are now accessible can give scientists for example a new understanding of how stars, planets and galaxies are born, he says.

Perfect timing​

The receivers were developed by the GARD group (click on the image for a larger version with all names) in a project funded by the EU program EC FP6​ in 2006-2012. The timing proved to be perfect. When the first receivers were ready, new research areas were opening up that specifically required ALMA to be able to observe in Band 5.

Victor and his colleagues had completed six complete receivers, but to handle the order for a further 73, a team from NOVA (Netherlands Research School for Astronomy) was invited to participate. They integrated GARD’s components in the receiver cassettes.

“Their effort was important to complete the delivery, but the major challenge was to develop the receiver and manufacture the components. We are delivering to the world’s best and most advanced telescope, and thanks to our knowledge and experience, they have now got the best possible receivers”.

Cool receivers

The biggest challenge in the production of receivers for radio telescopes is how to reduce noise from their surroundings and get as clean a signal as possible.

“The noise sets the limit for how weak signals can be detected. It’s like finding the right station on a regular FM-radio, but a million times more sensitive! So, the more we can reduce different types of noise, the more we increase the possibilities for new discoveries in space”, says Victor Belitsky.

For example, the receivers operate at -269 degrees Celsius, four degrees above absolute zero, to counteract interference from thermal radiation. The image shows the receivers housed in their cryostat, which is designed to maintain such low temperatures.

Reducing loss of signal in Earth’s atmosphere is also the reason that the ALMA telescope is located at 5000 meters above sea level, in one of the driest places in the world. There is very little water vapor in the atmosphere above the telescope, which means the Band 5 receivers can look for water in space, both nearby and far away, Victor Belitsky explains.

“There are many uses for our receivers, both in our solar system and in distant galaxies. It depends on which research applications and topics the Alma Research Committee selects, but we know there is a lot of interest to observe water in our own solar system”.

Sweden among world leaders​

Sweden’s success with Alma is not limited to delivering instruments. Swedish researchers were among the most frequent users of the telescopes last year, second only to Japan.

“Second place! That shows the strength and position of Swedish astronomical research in international terms. With the support of instrumentation, we are at one of the world’s leading positions – both in terms of research and technology. That’s something to be proud of”, says Victor Belitsky.

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Chalmers University of Technology (Swedish: Chalmers tekniska högskola, often shortened to Chalmers) is a Swedish university located in Gothenburg that focuses on research and education in technology, natural science, architecture, maritime and other management areas

The University was founded in 1829 following a donation by William Chalmers, a director of the Swedish East India Company. He donated part of his fortune for the establishment of an “industrial school”. Chalmers was run as a private institution until 1937, when the institute became a state-owned university. In 1994, the school was incorporated as an aktiebolag under the control of the Swedish Government, the faculty and the Student Union. Chalmers is one of only three universities in Sweden which are named after a person, the other two being Karolinska Institutet and Linnaeus University.