CORVALLIS, Ore. — At 9,000 feet up on the driest place on Earth, Michael Thorburn is helping build a radio telescope that is eavesdropping on the darkest secrets of the universe.
It is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is the largest astronomical project in existence, looking back farther and deeper into space than anything 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 Chile, in 2011.
ALMA is all about seeking origins, and Thorburn says his OSU origins were pivotal to his career path.
He met his wife, Carol, of Lebanon, Ore. (a former Strawberry Princess, “although she wouldn’t like me to say what year”), 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.”
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,” he 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. Water vapor absorbs electromagnetic energy, which is a deal-breaker when you are trying to hear radio echoes from billions of light years away.
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.
Thorburn has seen what can happen when engineering fails. “I was working at Rockwell (International)” when the Challenger blew up,” he said.
He prefers to discuss successes he’s seen, mostly in his work with satellites. He helped engineer the first Global Positioning Satellite units. He helped build and launch Wild Blue, among the first Internet satellites.
On the Galileo Project, an unmanned space probe to Jupiter, he helped to solve an engineering problem: A key antenna that was supposed to open like an umbrella just wouldn’t.
“The spacecraft was on its way to Jupiter,” Thorburn said. The solution:
“We placed five 34-meter-diameter ground station antennas in Australia, Spain, and three in California.” Problem solved; data flow assured.