Chilean astronomer makes her mark

The Antennae (B. Saxton, (NRAO/AUI/NSF), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO). Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope) Antennae: Alma sees carbon monoxide (orange & yellow) in this composite picture that incorporates Hubble imagery

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Chilean researcher Cinthya Herrera has not quite achieved her PhD in astronomy yet, but already she has notched up a notable success in her career.

The 27-year-old student has the distinction of publishing the very first science paper to come out of the Alma radio telescope.

This huge facility, going up in Chile's Atacama Desert, is set to revolutionise our understanding of the cosmos.

Ms Herrera's efforts will be followed by thousands more publications.

"I was really excited to be told my work was the first refereed paper accepted for publication based on Alma observations, but also I was extremely proud because Alma is in Chile," the young astronomer told BBC News.

Ms Herrera has been describing her studies here in Manchester at the UK National Astronomy Meeting (NAM).

Her investigations involved looking for star forming clusters resulting from the merger of a pair of spiral galaxies.

This collision, known as "The Antennae", lies about 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Corvus (The Crow).

It produces very turbulent regions of gas that must dissipate their energy if they are to condense and form new stars.

"With Alma and its wonderful resolution, we were able to trace the molecular mass of the gas and the structures that will form stars; and using another telescope run by the European Southern Observatory, we were able to trace the energy dissipation," Ms Herrera explained.

Cinthya Herrera

"The tracers we observe to do this are carbon monoxide in the case of Alma and molecular hydrogen in the case of the second telescope - the Very Large Telescope, also in the Atacama."

Details of the work have appeared in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The data was acquired in the so-called science verification phase of Alma (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array).

The co-operative venture that includes the scientific and engineering inputs of Europe, East Asia, North America, and the host nation, Chile, is still only half-built.

Week by week, new radio antennas are being added to the observing network sited 5,000m above sea level on Atacama's Chajnantor plateau.

Right now, there are 22 of its 12m dishes in place with another seven 7m dishes also observing the sky.

It is planned there should be a total of 66 antennas when Alma becomes fully operational in the next couple of years.

The observatory's capabilities are keenly awaited by astronomers.

The unprecedented resolution it will achieve at longer wavelengths of light will allow scientists to study extremely cold objects in space - such as the dense clouds of cosmic dust and gas from which stars and planets form.

Pallab Ghosh looks around the array of giant antennas that makes up Alma

It is expected also to see very distant objects in the early Universe, including some of the very first structures to form more than 13 billion years ago.

Ms Herrera is currently studying in Paris, France, at the Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS), but her intention is to return home to work on all the telescopes that take advantage of the great observing conditions in the high, dry Atacama.

"For the next few decades, I think Alma will be one of the greatest telescopes on Earth," she told the BBC.

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