IQ alert: Big brains head this way

Astronomers note that masses are hurtling toward Charlottesville. But don't worry, they may not wreak destruction on our historic hamlet, and they could raise the average IQ a few points.

Those masses are masses of flesh, astrophysicists who'll be moving to town over the next two years. They'll make Charlottesville the center of the universe, so to speak, for the study of radiation emitted as long as 13.5 million years ago by the Big Bang and other celestial activity.

Since when is Charlottesville such an astronomic mecca?

It dates back to 1965, when the National Radio Astronomy Observatory put its headquarters in Charlottesville. And although NRAO is not directly affiliated with UVA (it's under the umbrella of the National Science Foundation), proximity to the university played a role, says NRAO spokesman Chuck Blue.

The reason for the sudden growth is ALMA, a massive "array telescope" similar to the Socorro, New Mexico-based Very Large Array, or VLA, seen in the movie Contact and also operated by NRAO.

The ALMA itself (it stands for Atacama Large Millimeter Array) won't be here in Charlottesville, but rather 16,500 feet above sea level in the Chilean Andes. When completed in 2012, ALMA will be the world's largest array telescope with 64 dishes compared to VLA's 27– operating in unison to pick up millimeter and submillimeter wavelength light. Scientists here in Charlottesville and Europe (location TBA) will spend years pouring over the data, hoping to get the Biggest Bang for their buck (or Euro).

NRAO is probably best known for its giant radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. At 17 million pounds, 485 feet in height, and diameter over 100 yards, it's the largest moving machine on the planet. It was built during the 1990s after an earlier dish at the same site collapsed under its own weight in 1988.

That dish, just slightly smaller than the current one, lasted about 26 years, and NRAO's Blue says it was never meant to last. "It was built for a 10-year project," he explains. Fortunately, the collapse of the massive dish didn't injure anyone. "It gracefully laid itself down in the middle of the night," says Blue.

Radio telescopes are complicated instruments. Unlike optical telescopes that rely on mirrors to reflect light to a focal point, radio telescopes use a dish to collect radio waves that are then sent through a computer for analysis. But these are not your DirecTV dishes. At millions of dollars apiece, the radio telescope dishes have unbelievable accuracy. Blue says ALMA would be able to measure the diameter of the period at the end of a sentence from over a mile away.

While VLA focuses on centimeter and larger wavelengths, ALMA, which will cost over $550 million, will be the first array telescope to focus on the smallest wavelengths those that provide a look billions of years back in time. Galaxy and star formations can be studied using millimeter and submillimeter radiation, while longer wavelengths allow the study of phenomena such as black holes.

Because of the wavelength specificity, ALMA, though powerful, would not be used to identify alien life forms intent on an earthly encounter. (Rood says a telescope called Arecibo in Puerto Rico spends a few weeks each year seeking extraterrestrial contact.)

NRAO's presence has been a major boon for Jefferson's university, says UVA Astronomy Chair Robert Rood.

"It helps us recruit grad students and faculty," says Rood, whose says it helped lure him to UVA in 1973. "I probably wouldn't have come here when I did," he adds, "if it weren't for NRAO."

NRAO currently has 104 local employees, including scientists, engineers, and administrative staff, according to Blue, but that number will increase by at least 35 by 2006.

To make room for the added brainpower, NRAO is expanding its primary location, a stately campus commonly known as Stone Hall, at 520 Edgemont Road at the foot of UVA's Observatory Hill.

NRAO has also begun renting the former Institute of Textile Technology building about two miles from Charlottesville across from the Boar's Head Inn. That 9.2-acre property was purchased by Ivy Road Properties LLC in August for $6.6 million.

Since ALMA will have 64 dishes spread out over as much as 10 kilometers, collapse won't be a concern. However, keeping all dishes functioning as a unit will be a constant challenge.

It's a challenge NRAO assistant director Mark Adams says the astronomy world is buzzing about.

"We're all very excited," he says.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is getting bigger in Charlottesville.