Ginormous truck helps build $1-billion space observatory project

What has 28 tires, weighs 130 tons, features 1,400 horse-power diesel engines, is 33ft-wide, 66 feet long and almost 20 feet high? No it's not the new Hummer, but a humongous truck-like vehicle for carrying massive high-tech antennas up the sides of mountains.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) vehicles have their dainty side as well, while its 130 ton mass has to be able to lift and transport antennas of up to 115 tons, it also has to reliably and safely climb a 17 mile road with an average grade of 7% from an altitude of 9000 feet to almost 17,000 and position the antennas it is carrying on docking pads with precision in the millimeter range.

The vehicles are key to the ALMA Project - a giant, $1 billion international space observatory currently in construction on the high-altitude Chajnantor site in Chile, and composed initially of 66 high-precision telescopes, operating at wavelengths of 0.3 to 9.6 mm.

The ALMA antennas will be electronically combined and 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.

Meanwhile, the transporters will be making trips to and from a base camp to the high observing site that takes about three hours. A special brake system allows them to safely make the downhill trip.

The machines also incorporate a number of redundant safety devices to protect both the personnel and the valuable antennas. At the high altitude, the engine will loose about half of their power (compared to sea level) because of the reduced oxygen content on the air, ALMA researchers said.

The ALMA vehicles will be able to move at the speed of 14MPH when empty and about 7MPH when loaded with an antenna.

The transporters can be driven from the cabin like a truck, or unmanned from a portable panel, researchers said.

The ALMA transporter is undergoing tests at the Scheuerle Fahrzeugfabrik company which is building the massive vehicle near Nuremberg, Germany.

The machine is scheduled for delivery at the ALMA site in Chile by the end of 2007, and a second vehicle will follow about three months later.The vehicles are highly customized as well.

For example, the backrests of the driver seats are shaped to allow the driver to wear his oxygen tank while driving, said Andreas Kohler, Vice President for Research and Development at Scheuerle Fahrzeugfabrik.

"The ability to move antennas to reconfigure the observatory's array is vital to fulfilling ALMA's scientific mission.

The operations plan calls for moving antennas on a regular basis to provide the flexibility that will be such a big part of ALMA's scientific value.

That's why the transporters are so important and why this is such a significant milestone," says Adrian Russell, the North American Project Manager for ALMA.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022