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  • March 17, 2014

Dave Yoder: Painting the Sky From the Atacama Desert

Author
Dave Yoder

The largest-ever astronomical project, ALMA, is a herculean cooperation between three continents—North America, Europe, and East Asia—to build and network 66 radio antennas at 16,500 feet altitude in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The expansive radio telescope array, completed in 2013, is capable of scanning wavelengths that have seldom been explored. It searches the heavens for clues about the origins of the universe.

Picture of antenna in plain
ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) radio telescope antennas on the Chajnator Plain at 16,500 feet, with the dormant volcano Licancabur in the background.

A few months ago I stood alone in that Alice in Wonderland garden of high-science, surrounded by ALMA’s ginormous mechanical mushrooms, shuddering from cold and giddy from the rarified air. In the crystalline pre-dawn hours of a moonless night I watched antennas effortlessly pirouette, their silhouettes defined by a boisterous field of distant suns and galaxies. The light whistle of wind, blowing over the breach of the Chajnantor Plateau, smothered the faint hum of the antennas’ impossibly quiet magnetic motors to eerie effect. The dishes danced together in homage to the night sky, sometimes swinging about quickly, other times slowly, intently tracking distant curiosities.

I thought, “Remember this moment, Dave. You’re not likely to see anything like this again.”

Picture of ALMA Array antenna
A view of antennas at the high AOS (Array Operations Site) site

Do we photographers go witness such things to take pictures, or do we take pictures in order to experience such things? I would not have been there had I not been on assignment for National Geographic magazine. In my case, I suspect the latter question is closer to the truth.

ALMA was experiencing growing pains during my visit. Frequent blackouts crashed their supercomputer, called the Correlator, one of the world’s largest. Antennas were often frozen all night, not only complicating my work, but more importantly, hemorrhaging precious observation time for disappointed astronomers.

It was during such down time that I approached antenna production manager Bill Johnson with a scheme to mount a camera onto the lip of an antenna dish. I took him three proposals. He accepted one. Our next step was to convince the ALMA administration.

Picture of ALMA antenna being moved donkeys
Burros are witness to an antenna being transported to the high AOS site at 16,500 feet elevation.

The safety rules at ALMA trump everything else. My first stop for every shoot on this assignment was always the safety department, because if it didn’t pass muster there, it was DOA. Thankfully, the safety officer I worked with on most requests, Ivan Lopez, was an ebullient anti-bureaucrat who didn’t unnecessarily toss around the word “no” as a privilege of position, something I had grown accustomed to from living in Italy. As long as safety issues were satisfied, he was usually game.

The biggest hurdle was that Bill and I would have to ride in the cabin of the antenna all night, during operation, to operate the camera and pan-tilt head. We explained that we would always be in radio contact with ALMA security over Bill’s radio, as well as with my assistants outside the antenna with another set of radios I had brought. It was green-lit, but I didn’t know that to another branch of the administration I had never met, such an operation was so wildly prohibitive that apparently nobody had thought of actually disallowing it.

In the perfect world that exists only in my head, I planned to take long-exposure pictures during the upcoming Geminids meteor shower, effectively turning the antenna into what an astrophotographer might consider a $7 million azimuth tripod. I hoped that long exposures of several minutes would collect the streaks of several meteors into a single image, while the antenna tracked a distant point in the sky to counter the rotation of the earth and minimize star trails.

Picture of ALMA Array antenna
Antennas peer into the heavens.

On the day of the shower, a high-level administrator learned of our plan and promptly killed it. Rather than spending the day in preparation for the shoot, I navigated political channels to resurrect the project. It was ultimately allowed to proceed, but with the odd assurance that I had an exclusive, because they “will never allow anyone to do this again.”

Bill shut the cabin door of the antenna, which seemed rather like a space capsule inside. As he tilted the antenna skyward, the wall turned into the ceiling, and the door became a hatch above us. My laptop slid away from me as the floor transformed into a wall.

We were hardly settled in before the radio crackled; my assistant Pete Wintersteller, excited, was seeing meteors in the night sky. Within minutes, however, the temperature intercepted the dew point. To my horror, my laptop screen, which was monitoring the camera’s image in a live feed, turned milky-white. The lens had frosted over. It soon became clear the situation was hopeless as going to the camera in a man-lift at night was explicitly disallowed. As if matters weren’t bad enough, a radio then informed us that ALMA’s power had gone out again and the antenna was running on emergency generators. Bill’s eyes widened. “I’m taking it to zenith, let’s get out or we’ll be stuck in here for who knows how long.”

With the meteor shower lost, I spent the next day utterly deflated at the lower control site, wondering what to do. I had one more night at ALMA before the camera had to come down and I was scheduled to leave. I spied an ancient USB 1.1 coffee cup warmer on an electrical engineer’s desk. “Can I borrow that?” I asked.

Picture of night sky from antenna
A photograph of star trails is captured from inside an antenna cabin.

A couple hours later at the AOS (Array Operations Site), as the cold afternoon winds buffeted Bill and me on the man-lift, we connected a second 20-meter USB cable to the coffee cup warmer and pressed it against the barrel of the lens, wrapping it in strips of torn blanket and tape. We clambered back into the antenna cabin, and as dusk retreated to reveal the stars, we proceeded to take clear, frost-free images. As he swung the antenna around, I made pictures with star trails. We watched movies on an iPad and munched on chocolate until dawn. Every half hour or so, our collaboration was rewarded with a new creation on the laptop screen, each one different from the last. Looking at the pictures we had made, Bill said, “I’ve been building these antennas for many years and I’ve never seen pictures like these.”

Dave Yoder’s photographs are featured in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic.

Tune in to the National Geographic Channel on Mondays for the weekly series Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.

There are 25 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Steven Duane Newcomb
    June 29, 2014

    My favorite shot is of the Burros. Although the picture of the star trail is also very awesome. Overall very nice piece.

  2. hamid
    June 29, 2014

    its fantastic

  3. Teresa
    June 22, 2014

    The last photo was absolutely stunning! Exquisite photography.

  4. Andrew Hentman
    June 19, 2014

    Thank you for sharing these fantastic images made available through your imagination and creative thinking.

  5. Robin Jun Su
    June 8, 2014

    太漂亮了,大爱!

  6. Jane
    June 7, 2014

    fantastic

  7. Cary E. A. Craine
    June 6, 2014

    I love the tunnel affect!

  8. vishwas
    May 31, 2014

    it seems that you are rotating your cam.

  9. Krupa Gadre
    May 31, 2014

    This is God Creation

  10. CLAUDIO PIEGAIA
    May 30, 2014

    AMAZING !!!

  11. Daniel Amundson
    May 29, 2014

    Technology today is amazing, and this is just the beginning

  12. Vipin
    May 24, 2014

    Wow Amazing

  13. Dave
    May 11, 2014

    awesome picture, how do you make the photo come alive with the swirling stars?

  14. DaVinci
    May 11, 2014

    truly amazing, i love long exposure stars photograph

  15. Jose’ Lai
    May 9, 2014

    Dave mentioned other pictures as well. Is it possible to see them as well? I’m mesmerized by these pictures posted here, can’t wait to see the others.

  16. John Hukka
    April 24, 2014

    kinda surprised a nat geo photog didn’t think of bringing a lens warmer for something like this????

  17. mathew kariuki
    April 21, 2014

    good for our eyes and learning

  18. varshadas
    April 13, 2014

    there is no much differance between a piccaso and a photographer

  19. David Mena A.
    March 27, 2014

    Un gran trabajo y hermosas fotografías . saludos. atte.

  20. noelle rowan
    March 27, 2014

    I LOVED looking at all of these, as well as reading all about it. I am sharing this with a large amount of people in my mass email tomorrow. You will get a lot of visitors. Bravo.

  21. Eng. Antonio Falivene
    March 19, 2014

    Many congratulations! Dave Yoder one of the best report I have read on the subject of cosmos observation, in years!! and great pictures!

    And many congratulations to National Geographic too!!

  22. Alison Peck
    March 18, 2014

    Fantastic photos, Dave, and I’m still amazed you talked them into letting you do it. :) Really, really impressive stuff.

  23. Carlos Gonzalez
    March 18, 2014

    My “ancient USB 1.1 coffee cup warmer” is still alive Dave. Now, finally I’ll see the results of you and your team hard work up there in Chajnantor. Greetings from ALMA!

  24. pilar
    March 18, 2014

    absolutely a great adventure, and I feel lucky to be a part of it, nice job Dave Yoder

  25. Martin Weber
    March 17, 2014

    Absolut amazing beautiful pictures. Was there 1 week ago in the Atacama.
    It’s the best place for making this foots.

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