CORVALLIS — From 9,000 feet up on the driest place on Earth, Michael Thorburn is helping to build a radio telescope that is eavesdropping on the darkest secrets of the universe.
It is called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array — or ALMA for short. ALMA, located in Chile, is the largest astronomical project in existence — and it is looking back farther and deeper into space than anything that has come before.
Thorburn, 52, graduated from Oregon State University with an undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1983 and a doctorate in electrical engineering a few years later. He was named the head of ALMA’s Department of Engineering in 2011.
ALMA is all about seeking origins, and Thorburn credits his own OSU origins with being pivotal to his career path.
He met his wife, Carol, of Lebanon, during a summer session at OSU. They have a son and three grandchildren.
And he fondly recalled the influences of his undergraduate mathematics professor Ron Guenther and his electrical engineering professor, the late Vijai Tripathi, as well as math professor Tom Linstrom and physics professor Carl Kocher. He credits them with preparing him for the career he wanted since he saw the first launch of a craft into outer space.
“It really is rocket science," he said. “And that is cool."
Thorburn’s ambitions have taken him far from home. He and his wife maintain a residence south of San Francisco. But these days they live most of the time in Santiago, Chile.
ALMA is described on its website as “an international partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile ... (When finished sometime in late 2013) ALMA will be a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed initially of 66 high precision antennas."
Already the 53 satellite-dish-like antennas that are in place have been transmitting some fascinating new data from the darkest regions of the universe.
“We can look at stars 13.5 billion light years away," Thorburn said. “The Big Bang is said to have happened 13.7 billion years ago."
It’s possible to get this kind of clear radio signal — clear enough to decode chemical compositions, temperatures, remote distances — because ALMA is high and dry — 9,000 feet up on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Andes Mountains of Chile on what is indeed the driest place on the planet.
“There are parts of this place that haven’t seen rain in 100 years," Thorburn said.
It’s the location’s dryness that makes the site ideal for deep-space radio transmission. Water vapor absorbs electromagnetic energy, which is a deal-breaker when you are trying to hear the faintest radio echoes from billions of light years away.
Making that possible at ALMA are the 53 antennas — most of them 40 feet in diameter — that are linked by fiber optics. Each one weighs about 200 tons.
Thorburn’s formidable task is to ensure that the engineering work of the 400-member international team goes smoothly, with no glitches, as it puts the final antennas into place.
In his long career, Thorburn has seen what can happen when engineering fails.
“I was working at Rockwell (International)" when the Challenger blew up," he said.
O-ring seals on the craft’s right solid rocket booster failed, and the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986 —73 seconds into liftoff for its ninth mission. All seven crew members were killed.
Thorburn prefers to discuss the many pioneering efforts he’s seen that have been launched far more successfully, mostly in his work with satellites. He’s helped to engineer the first Global Positioning Satellite units. He also worked under private contract to the Air Force, and for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
He helped to build and to launch Wild Blue, among the first Internet satellites.
As for the idea that the array is similar (at least in appearance) to the space-eavesdropping antennas in the 1997 film, “Contact," which pick up signals from another planet: Thorburn smiles politely. No comparison.
“That," he said, “is just a movie."