Cryogenic service truck climbs mountain so telescopes don't have to

Custom built 26-ton trucks service temperature-sensitive astronomical equipment high in Chilean mountains.

Moving a 115-ton telescope down a mountain and 40 miles on the back of a humongous truck to a servicing facility is no task for the timid.

It's a job the caretakers of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility , no longer have to worry about thanks to a new custom designed truck that can transport and service ALMA's temperature-sensitive astronomical equipment without removing a telescope from the working array at 16,500 feet in the Chilean mountains.

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The truck, called the Front End Service Vehicle (FESV) is based on a Volvo FH 6x4 chassis: It is 36 feet long, 8 feet wide, and weighs 26 tons. The truck's built-in scissor lift is designed to push its cargo cabin 20 feet straight up to align with the receiver cabin of a telescope, similar to catering trucks that align with airplane doors, letting personnel inside replenish provisions directly at the airport gate, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

The truck lets personnel service million-dollar, state-of-the art hardware at one of the harshest locations on Earth, the Chajnantor Plain in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Working at an elevation of 16,500 feet, the FESVs will be at altitudes higher than even small aircraft can fly. To function in this extreme location, the FESV has insulated walls and a 440 HP turbo diesel engine, the group stated.

Each FESV also includes an air-conditioned cabin and an on-board generator to keep ALMA's receivers cryogenically cooled to 4 Kelvin (-452 °F) during transport and servicing. The roomy compartments carry telescope power supplies, air tanks, and a suite of maintenance equipment.  Two FESVs were commissioned by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, with the help of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Until now, servicing the superconducting receivers inside an ALMA telescope has required hauling the entire 115-ton telescope from its observing site at 16,500 feet down to a support facility at 9,500 feet. The dangerous 40-mile roundtrip, atop a monster truck called the ALMA Transporter, uses hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel, and the telescope's absence from scientific observing can be as long as four days, the group stated.

The ALMA transporter is pretty impressive on its own as it has 28 tires, weighs 130 tons, features 1,400 horse-power diesel engines, is 33ft-wide, 66 feet long and almost 20 feet high.

"It's the most complex hardware ever built in so harsh a place. We need fast, safe, temperature-controlled servicing," said Dr. Mauricio Pilleux, who is heading up the telescope servicing project as the North American ALMA Deputy Project Manager based in Chile, said that ALMA's telescopes will need technical attention every day.

When it is finished ALMA will include an 11-mile wide array of 66, ultra-precision millimeter-wave telescopes that can be electronically combined to provide astronomical observations which are equivalent to a single large telescope of tremendous size and resolution. ALMA will be able to probe the Universe at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, with accuracy up to ten times better than the Hubble Space Telescope, and complementing images made with ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer.

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