ALMA Workers Strike
August 23, 2013

Workers Strike At Groundbreaking ALMA Observatory

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Despite its remoteness and unique scientific work environment, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory is not immune to the disputes between workers and management that affect every other industry.

On Thursday, almost 200 workers went on strike over compensation that they say is inadequate considering the unusual demands of working in a remote, high-altitude location. The telescopic array is located in Chile’s Atacama Desert, 16,400 feet above sea level. The altitude and lack of moisture allow for some of the best conditions for astronomy, but can present a physical challenge for the people who work there.

The strike began after workers were unable to reach an agreement with their US-based employer Associated Universities Inc (AUI), the workers’ union said. Striking employees are said to be seeking a 15-percent wage increase and benefits commensurate with the working conditions, which include powerful winds, thin air and rapid temperature drops.

“The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array regrets that it was unable to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with its union, whose members are employed by Associated Universities Inc., to establish a new collective labor contract during the negotiation period and the subsequent mediation,” the observatory said in a statement.

The observatory said it would not discontinue operations, despite the loss of manpower. The striking workers include technicians and administrators but not scientists.

“ALMA has activated a contingency plan that will enable it to continue basic operations,” the official statement said. “ALMA is confident that it will soon overcome these challenging times and continue to deliver fascinating scientific discoveries to the world.”

The billion-dollar telescope became fully operational in March and has since spotted a variety of astronomical phenomena, including jets of gas being emitted from galaxies, a star formation near the center of the Milky Way and the first image of an icy ring around a distant star.

In July, ALMA astronomers showed how observations of interstellar gas can explain the strange lack of super-massive galaxies in the universe. Images captured using the array show massive expulsions of molecular gas being sent out from star-forming regions in the Sculptor Galaxy, located around 11 million light years from Earth.

"With ALMA’s superb resolution and sensitivity, we can clearly see for the first time massive concentrations of cold gas being jettisoned by expanding shells of intense pressure created by young stars," said Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland. "The amount of gas we measure gives us very good evidence that some growing galaxies spew out more gas than they take in. We may be seeing a present-day example of a very common occurrence in the early Universe."

The researchers found that large amounts of molecular gas were being ejected from the galaxy at a speed of between 93,000 and almost 620,000 miles per hour. They determined that the galaxy could run out of gas in about 60 million years.

Computer models have shown that older, cooler galaxies should have considerably more mass and stars than have been seen. The ALMA observations reveal that the galactic winds or gas outflow is so strong that they strip the galaxy of the fuel for the formation of additional stars.