Celebrating a decade of the Submillimeter Array

June 25, 2014 by David A. Aguilar

(Phys.org) —Ten years ago, eight antennas on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, united to form a telescope unlike any other. Since then the Submillimeter Array (SMA) has examined the universe in unprecedented detail and provided new insights into subjects as diverse as planetary formation and distant galaxies. Its achievements were celebrated earlier this month at a conference in Cambridge, Mass.

A joint project of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA), the SMA opened a new window onto the cosmos by observing radiation from some of the coldest, dustiest, and most distant objects in the universe. It explores the universe by detecting light at wavelengths (or colors) that are not visible to the human eye.

The SMA receives millimeter and submillimeter radiation, so named because the wavelength ranges from 0.3 to 1.7 millimeters, or 0.01 to 0.07 inches. It combines signals from eight 6-meter-diameter movable antennas to achieve very high resolution, comparable to the best ground-based optical telescopes.

The SMA was built because of the vision of then-SAO director Irwin Shapiro, who felt that the time was ripe to explore the universe at submillimeter wavelengths at .

Former SMA director Jim Moran notes, "I'm amazed to realize that the most notable accomplishments of the SMA were not envisioned by its proponents. For example, in 1983 we hadn't seen any exoplanets or protoplanetary disks. Yet the SMA has had a major impact on studying gaps in protoplanetary disks, which are thought to be cleared by planets."

From the start, the SMA made fundamental contributions to astronomy. In 2005, it monitored the Deep Impact mission, which sent a projectile to impact Comet Tempel 1. The impact produced more dust and less water vapor than expected.

Moving outward from our solar system, the SMA pierced the thick clouds where stars are born to learn more about the formation process. It revealed the key roles played by magnetic fields and turbulence in shaping star formation. It also unveiled how small cosmic seeds grow into big stars.

The SMA excels at exposing otherwise hidden galaxies in the distant, young . It peered across 12 billion light-years of space to uncover the brightest galaxies of their time, and a galaxy forming stars at a surprisingly furious rate. It has even teamed with other observatories to study a black hole and measure its "point of no return." And, it served as a pathfinder for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is currently under construction in Chile.

The future of the SMA looks bright. In particular, it will act as a key element of the Event Horizon Telescope, a collection of telescopes that will operate as an array of unprecedented resolution. The Event Horizon Telescope is expected to produce images of the around the black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

Explore further: Intense Star Formation in the Early Universe

Related Stories

Intense Star Formation in the Early Universe

April 2, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Distant galaxies are not only far away in space. Because it takes time for their light to reach us, they are also very far away in time -- snapshots from the distant past.

'Population census' of galaxies buried in dust

May 31, 2013

A research team led by Bunyo Hatsukade, a postdoc researcher, and Kouji Ohta, a professor, both from the Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, revealed that approximately 80% of the unidentifiable millimeter wave ...

SMA reveals giant star cluster in the making

December 16, 2013

W49A might be one of the best-kept secrets in our galaxy. This star-forming region shines 100 times brighter than the Orion nebula, but is so obscured by dust that very little visible or infrared light escapes.

SMA unveils how small cosmic seeds grow into big stars

February 26, 2014

New images from the Smithsonian's Submillimeter Array (SMA) telescope provide the most detailed view yet of stellar nurseries within the Snake nebula. These images offer new insights into how cosmic seeds can grow into massive ...

Recommended for you

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

A mission to a metal world—The Psyche mission

October 9, 2015

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA's Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of ...

Image: Pluto's blue sky

October 9, 2015

Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn's moon ...

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.