ALMA Goes Broadband with New High-Speed Data Connection

ALMA’s remote location is a boon to astronomy but a telecommunication challenge for the astronomers who work there. Thanks to a newly installed broadband fiber-optic line between the ALMA and the city of Calama in northern Chile, astronomers from around the world now have high-speed access to this world-class telescope.

ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), was recently upgraded with a new broadband telecommunications link that can transmit data 25 times faster than before. The link, which consists of 150 kilometers of fiber optic cable, was installed between the observatory and the city of Calama and paid for by the ALMA North American Development Program.

From Calama, the system connects with Chile’s existing high-speed data line — the Corporación Red Universitaria Nacional (REUNA) — which then connects ALMA to its main offices in Santiago, where the data is processed and shared with the astronomical community.

ALMA's new fiber optic network will connect this remote site in the Atacama Desert with the city of Calama and then on to Santiago and the world. Data for astronomers from North America will be sent to the NRAO in Charlottesville, Va. See the video showing the link here. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ) E. Diaz

ALMA’s new fiber optic network will connect this remote site in the Atacama Desert with the city of Calama and then on to Santiago and the world. Data for astronomers from North America will be sent to the NRAO in Charlottesville, Va. See the video showing the link here. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ) E. Diaz

“This important milestone for ALMA draws upon the enormous scientific potential of the observatory, by providing an enormous amount of data, with astonishing speed, to the scientific community of the Member States involved in the ALMA observatory and, thereby, reach the world’s scientific community,” said Dr. Eduardo Hardy, representative in Chile for Associated Universities Inc. (AUI), the institution that represents the North American partners of ALMA.

ALMA’s new high-speed data capability is the result of a contract signed between AUI, and Sílica Networks Chile S.A. and Telefónica Empresas Chile S.A.

“This new infrastructure not only allows transmitting the enormous amount of data generated by ALMA, but it also improves the level of communication between the people operating the observatory at a remote site in the middle of the Atacama Desert and those who process that data in the central offices in Santiago,” said Giorgio Filippi, project leader, who is a staff member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), that represents the European partners of ALMA.

This project culminated with technical testing of data transmission between the Chajnantor Plateau, situated at an altitude of 5,000 meters above sea level, where ALMA’s 66 antennas are located, and the main offices in Santiago. Although the full capacity of the installed network was not used, two channels with a capacity exceeding 1 Gbps (Gigabite per second) were successfully tested.

“This successful preliminary test confirmed the proper operation of ALMA’s new digital road and opens a number of new possibilities to further enhance the operation of the array and the transmission of scientific data from the observatory,” said Jorge Ibsen, Director of the Computing Department of the Joint ALMA Observatory.

The new connectivity system is the result of a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) — operated by AUI — and REUNA. It will be fully operational later this year.

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