Each antenna is perched on a rotating steel pedestal with precisely installed copper lining to protect from lightning. Each dish has a sensitive receiver made of carbon fiber to avoid thermal expansion. The structures, 40 feet (12-meter) tall, lean closer together or farther apart as astronomers zoom in or get wider views. The ALMA correlator, which calculates more than 20 quadrillion operations per second, is the fastest computer ever used at an astronomical site. It compiles the data into a single large view.
"We came from the caves and we're here now just because of curiosity," said Rieks Jager, system integration manager at ALMA, as he stepped out of the control room near the "silent area" military-style barracks where astronomers sleep during the day. "It's not always clear what we study, or whether it's useful for society, but overall it's absolutely essential for humankind."
It's a quantum leap forward since Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei invented one of the first telescopes in the 17th century, discovering sunspots and valleys on the surface of the moon.
"Astronomy has been with us forever and we still have so much more to go," said Maza, the astronomy professor. "If we hadn't asked ourselves so many questions by looking at the stars we would still be ... hunting buffalos. At the end, all of man's development comes from the act of leaving the stones aside and looking upward at the twinkling stars and asking, 'Why?' "
ALMA reminds Juan Rodrigo Cortes, one of the observatory's astronomers, of a phrase from Antoine De Saint Exupery's book "The Little Prince" — "What is essential is invisible to the eyes."
"What's essential here is the material that creates stars, galaxies, clouds, that doesn't emit light visible to our eyes, but goes way beyond the infrared at much longer wavelengths, and that's why our eyes can't see it," Cortes said. "ALMA gives us eyes."
Scientists and researchers are willing to go to extremes to catch a glimpse of the universe through those eyes.
As many as 500 people at a time live at 9,500 feet above sea level in shipping containers modified as trailers. Alcohol is banned due to the sensitivity of the equipment, and those caught drinking after trips to the nearby city of San Pedro de Atacama must sleep at the security checkpoint while they dry out. Their shifts can last 12 hours daily for eight straight days.
Even the weather is unpredictable. Although the clearest of skies are the norm, this year, scientists have had to deal with mudslides, floods and thunderstorms. But most of the time, they seem to be far removed from the rest of the world.
Inside ALMA's control room, German astronomer Rainer Mauersberger had no idea he had put his orange sweater on backward. He was thinking about the formation of galaxies, hoping perhaps to spot a black hole.
"This project has to do with the origin of our life and our future," Mauersberger explained as he sat near a long table full of Halloween masks, used by the scientists to share a light moment or a laugh to break up the long days and nights of stargazing.
"It's about how can we predict our future climates, the evolution of the earth, the sun, our species," he said. "We know more about our universe, our culture, than we ever dreamt of 100 years ago. Our prediction is that the real surprises here will come with things that we can't even begin to imagine."
Follow AP's Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao