B.C. man gets ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ job managing world’s largest telescope in Chile

Sean Dougherty leaves Monday to become director of ALMA

Sean Dougherty pictured at ALMA in Chile. (Sean Dougherty)

An astrophysicist from the South Okanagan is about to embark on a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity managing the world’s largest telescope in Chile.

Sean Dougherty runs the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Kaleden, B.C., but on Monday will leave for Chile to become the director of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Observatory.

ALMA is a state-of-the-art telescope located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence and aims to study some of the furthest galaxies in the universe.

“I threw my hat in the ring not really thinking … I’m from Sleepy Hollow in the South Okanagan and they asked me if I’d take the job,” Dougherty told Sarah Penton, host of CBC’s Radio West.

“It was overwhelming in the sense that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Image taken during a time-lapse at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the Chilean Andes. (C. Malin/ ALMA)

Dougherty was a mathematician who later earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Calgary.

He also served as a Canadian member of the ALMA board for two years and was asked to apply for the new role at the Chilean observatory.

He will run the operations in Chile and also be responsible for offsite operations that occur in North America, Europe and Japan.

Studying the universe

He leaves this week and will be joined by his family in April for the full length of the five-year contract.

He calls it a “fantastic family adventure.”

“It’s the kind of opportunity you’re not going to get asked to do every day, that’s for sure,” he said.

“I realized if I didn’t take the chance, I would always be thinking what would have happened if?”

The observatory is situated high on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes and is a collaboration between international partners from Europe, North America and East Asia.

ALMA itself is comprised of 66 high-precision antennas, spread over a distance of up to 16 kilometres.

The goal of ALMA is to study star formation, molecular clouds and the early universe.

Dougherty says the only downside is leaving his “amazing little village” in the Okanagan Valley, but says his family does intend to return to B.C. once his contract ends.

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