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In the Chilean Atacama Desert, over 60 telescopes provide images of previously unexplored areas of space at an altitude of 5,100 meters as part of the astronomical ALMA research project. The radio antennas received millimeter and submillimeter waves in the range between radio waves and infrared rays and together are intended to simulate one large telescope with a diameter of several kilometers. Given the extreme operating conditions, perfect operation of the telescopes is only possible with a sophisticated air conditioning system that protects the sensitive technology from the large temperature fluctuations, while at the same time using as little energy as possible.
The extreme weather conditions on the Chajnantor Plateau make independent air conditioning of the moving parts of the telescope indispensable. In direct sunlight, the surfaces quickly heat up to 30°C to 40°C, while at the same time minus temperatures can prevail in the shade. In view of the different coefficients of expansion of the materials, thermal distortion can occur here if there is no corresponding air-conditioning technology, thereby rendering reproducible measurements impossible. At the same time, the heat loads in the interior of the antennas have to be led away in order to prevent overheating of the receiver cabin and its computer controlled measuring instruments.
Vertex Antennentechnik GmbH, the company commissioned with the design and construction of the telescopes, turned to Menerga with the task of developing an appropriate air conditioning system for these difficult conditions.
The aim of the customer-specific development was to ensure that the temperature in the receiver cabin was within the range 16°C to 22°C throughout the year. The air conditioning system developed for this task comprises four components:
- A cold water generator as an external unit with the option of free cooling
- A glycol distribution system between the cold water generator and the two internal ventilation units
- Two internal recirculating air treatment units for the measurement and recording instruments, as well as the receiver
- Fans for the uniform distribution of air in the area of the receiver cabin that is difficult to access
The development of the air conditioning system for the ALMA telescopes was an unusual and challenging project which could only be carried out in close cooperation with the customers.
This was a customer-specific solution