by Megan Argo

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ALMA Antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau; Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), O. Dessibourg

Science is a very international endeavour, and always has been. The life stories of famous historical scientific figures are full of long periods spent studying in various different countries, or of copious written correspondence with other scientists around the world (often both). Science today is no different, and astronomy is arguably a more international endeavour than many other sciences - telescopes require good conditions in order to produce the detailed images of the universe we are so accustomed to seeing in the media and, usually, those optimal locations are not in the highly-populated regions where universities tend to be.

Astronomers today often have to move from place to place during their careers, experiencing new cultures and environments as they do so, and gaining an appreciation of the diversity of the world. If you visit a university astronomy department, you will notice a wide variety of accents and origins; the research group where I currently work, for example, has representatives from at least fifteen different countries.

But nowhere is the international nature of modern astronomy more obvious than in large mega-science projects such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a collection of more than 60 telescopes located high on the Chajnantor plateau of the Chilean Andes, one of the driest places on the planet. Projects like ALMA will help us understand the nature and physics of many exciting astronomical phenomena, providing a new and very sensitive window on the universe. New scientific facilities (not just telescopes!) are usually built with the aim of answering particular scientific questions, questions which require new methods or new technology to answer, but these new instruments or techniques often lead to the discovery of new types of objects or new physics that we cannot predict in advance - this is one of the most exciting things about any advance in technology.

But big projects like ALMA are so large, so complex and so expensive that no one country could afford to create them on their own. The only way they can become reality is through the cooperation of many universities, companies and funding agencies around the world. ALMA really is a global project: built in Chile, with high-precision antennas manufactured in Japan, Europe and the USA, with funding from all these partners and many more. The employees are just as diverse, with regional centres in many parts of the world set up to help local astronomers get the most from their ALMA observations.

Like most telescopes, ALMA operates under an open skies policy; this means that any professional astronomer, anywhere in the world, can apply for time on the instrument. The process is highly competitive, especially with something as new and exciting as ALMA, and applications for time on the telescope are scientifically reviewed by a panel - only the very best proposals are awarded observing time. Across the electromagnetic spectrum, many telescopes allocate observing time in this way, including optical telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are more international facilities on the horizon as well. The next major international radio astronomy facility will be the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a project which will place a multitude of antennas across both Australia and the southern countries of Africa. This huge project involves funding partners in more than twenty countries and astronomers in many more, and will be built across many borders.

But this idea of working across borders is not a new one, certainly in radio astronomy. Here in Europe, the EVN is a network of radio telescopes located in many different countries, each individually owned and operated by a local university or funding agency. Most of the time these telescopes are operated locally for whatever science the local institute desires, but for a few weeks a year they all come together to work as one, producing some of the highest resolution images available to astronomers. This network has been running since 1980, gaining many new telescopes along the way, and (despite having "Europe" in its name) today includes antennas in Russia, China and South Africa. Since 1993 the network has been coordinated by the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE) in the Netherlands, an organisation which coordinates the network and correlates the data, and hosts astronomers from around the world who come to process their observations.

Just as in amateur astronomy, professional astronomers have just one sky, and we all share it, no matter who or where we are. Up there, there are no borders, just the awe-inspiring wonder of the cosmos which excites so many people in so many ways. The world of professional astronomy today is a culturally diverse place, and all the better for it.

 

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megan argo

Megan Argo is a radio astronomer who has worked at four institutes across three countries and two continents. She regularly observes with networks of radio telescopes spread across (at least) fifteen countries and three continents, and has conducted outreach activities from inner city Manchester to rural India and the remote outback of Western Australia.

 

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