On the wind-lashed Chajnantor Plateau, a huddle of antennas—each weighing more than 100 tons—whirr overhead. At more than 5,000m above sea level (the same altitude as Mount Everest base camp) this is definitely an ideal location for scientists to explore the heavens from.
Here in the thin mountain air high up in the Chilean Andes, vast and complex observatories—The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA)—are studying the the universe and its origins. At the same time, a Love Nature team has come to film this array for the new programme—Undiscovered Vistas: Chile.
Producer Dan Hughes was part of that team. He picks up the story straight from the field:
‘ALMA’s high altitude site on the Chajnantor Plateau. Before Chris Gargus, our Director of Photography, and I made the ascent we acclimatised for a few days at 3,000m. A rapid descent from sea level to 5,000m will cause altitude sickness.
ALMA takes its safety regulations seriously. Before Chris and I were permitted to journey to the high-altitude plateau, to shoot the vistas and array of antennas, we had to undergo a medical exam onsite. They checked our blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. If we failed the exam, we would not be allowed up to shoot, so we were both a little tense. But we both passed and the examiner joked that I was ‘a vicuna’: the Andean camel that has adapted to thrive at high altitude.
When we arrived at the ALMA Operations Support Facility, we were told our van could not stay on site as it had a crack in its windshield. High elevation, we were told, could cause the windscreen to break further or even completely shatter.
Once we reached the plateau, we were only allowed to stay at high altitude for a maximum of two hours. At such cloud-piercing heights, Chris and I both felt our cognitive function slowing down. It took twice as long to process simple ideas. And in the thin mountain air, a simple jog from one camera set-up to the next felt like a marathon. It was all worth it though—the vistas of the Andes are spectacular and we got amazing shots and audio of ALMA’s massive antennas.
Shooting in the Atacama desert as a whole was a tremendous experience. It is the driest non-polar region on earth. Some parts of the desert have not experienced rain for hundreds of years. It looks and feels like another planet. In fact, NASA has tested its Mars Rover in the Atacama. More than any place on earth, the Atacama matches conditions found on Mars.
ALMA is one of the most important astronomy centres in the world. It is one of the highest observatories on earth, it is home to the world’s most powerful telescope and it is key to our understanding of how planets and galaxies formed. It’s definitely a special place.’
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