Listen to the audio blog entry:
"I also state that I am aware that visiting the ALMA Project may pose risks or hazards to my health...That as a result of these potential hazards, I...am aware I may suffer body injuries or serious illnesses, leading even to death."
So says the Waiver of Responsibility I was asked to sign by the international consortium that has created ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter submillimeter Array. I signed. Happily. Yes, I'll risk such unlikely joys as retinal hemorrhaging so that I can witness the inauguration of our world's most powerful telescope, 5,000 meters or 16,500 feet above sea level in Earth's driest desert.
This adventure began months ago when the American Astronomical Society met in my hometown of Long Beach, California. John Stoke of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory had arranged for me to interview ALMA scientists Alison Peck and Al Wooten. (You can enjoy our fascinating conversation as part of the January 21 Planetary Radio.) I also attended a presentation by astronomers who were already using the only partially completed array of ALMA radio telescopes to push back the boundaries of the known universe.
It's hard not to get excited when you hear solid scientists taking about awesome, unprecedented results. I've always wanted to visit Chile's Atacama Desert, home to so many of the greatest telescopes ever built, with more on the way. When John told me a handful of journalists would be invited to attend the inauguration, I put my name in the hat.
My invitation came two weeks ago. My air travel is arranged. I've had my typhoid and Hepatitis A shots. I've suffered through a test dose of Acetazolamide, the diuretic taken for altitude sickness. And I've got a bottle of last resort diarrhea fighter, Ciprofloxacin. My doctor says I'm up to the test. I hope he's right. It won't hurt that we'll be spending only a few hours at the array itself. Most of our days and nights will be at a relatively tame 2 miles above sea level.
I intend to contribute to this Atacama Diary often over the next three weeks. Join me as I prepare for the journey, and learn about ALMA, the Atacama, and why so many scientists and nations have taken on this amazing and terribly challenging project in the midst of magnificent desolation.