ALMA Debuts High-Resolution Results

The exciting results of the highest-resolution test campaign yet attempted by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) are detailed in a recent set of four papers.


Animation (click to watch) of the asteroid Juno as seen in mm wavelengths by ALMA’s Long Baseline Campaign. Image credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

ALMA’s array of antennas can be configured so that the baseline of the simulated telescope is as small as 150 m or as large as 15 km across. In its smaller configurations, ALMA studies the large-scale structure of cold objects in the Universe — and this is how the array has been used since it began its first operations in 2011. But now ALMA has begun to test its long-baseline configuration, in which it is able to make its highest-resolution observations and study the small-scale structure of objects in detail.

The Targets

ALMA’s Long Baseline Campaign, run in late 2014, observed five science targets using 22–36 antennas arranged with a baseline of up to the full 15 km. The targets were selected to push the limits of ALMA’s capabilities: each target has a small angular size (less than two arcseconds) with fine-scale structure that is largely unresolved in previous observations. Two of the targets, the variable star Mira and the active galaxy 3C138, were primarily used for calibration and comparisons of ALMA data to those of other telescopes. The remaining three targets not only demonstrated ALMA’s capabilities, but also resulted in new science discoveries.


ALMA’s highest resolution observation yet, of the gravitationally lensed galaxy SDP.81. The maximum resolution of this image is 23 milliarcseconds. Image credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF

  • Juno is one of the largest asteroids in our solar system’s main asteroid belt. ALMA’s observations of Juno were made when the asteroid was approximately 295 million km from Earth, and the ten images ALMA took have been stitched together into a brief animation that show the asteroid tumbling through space as it orbits the Sun. The resolution of these images — enough to study the shape and even some surface features of the asteroid! — are unprecedented for this wavelength.
  • HL Tau is a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. ALMA’s detailed observations of this region revealed remarkable structure within the disk: a series of light and dark concentric rings indicative of planets caught in the act of forming. Studying this system will help us understand how multi-planet solar systems like our own form and evolve.
  • The star-forming galaxy SDP.81 — located so far away that the light we see was emitted when the Universe was only 15% of its current age — is gravitationally-lensed into a cosmic arc, due to the convenient placement of a nearby foreground galaxy. The combination of the lucky alignment and ALMA’s high resolution grant us a spectacularly detailed view of this distant galaxy, allowing us to study its actual shape and the motion within it.

The observations from ALMA’s first test of its long baseline demonstrate that ALMA is capable of doing the transformational science it promised. As we gear up for the next cycle of observations, it’s clear that exciting times are ahead!


ALMA Partnership et al. 2015 ApJ 808 L1, L2, L3 and L4. Focus on the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign