A giant radio telescope in Chile will soon be able to look farther into outer space than ever before. Last month, the telescope—called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)—received its 66th and final antenna. When the antenna is installed by the end of this year, the telescope will reach its full strength.
“This is an important milestone in a project that has already expanded our understanding of the universe,” says Phil Jewell, the North American ALMA project director.
HOW ALMA WORKS
The 66 antennas are located in northern Chile in the Atacama Desert, more than 16,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains. Because they are so high up, ALMA can study light from some of the oldest and most distant galaxies in the universe. The telescope allows astronomers to look through dust in outer space to see what was happening in the universe billions of years ago.
ALMA’s antennas, which can be moved around and rearranged in all sorts of ways, have massive dishes that pick up signals individually. A supercomputer as powerful as 3 million laptops working together then combines these signals into one image. Once the final antenna is up and running, ALMA will be able to produce images 10 times sharper than those produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, science’s most powerful telescope to date.
ANSWERING COSMIC QUESTIONS
ALMA is managed jointly by the European Southern Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. Its antennas were provided by Europe, North America, and East Asia. ALMA received its first antenna in 2009 and officially opened for business last March, when all of its major systems were completed.
Even without all of its antennas in place, ALMA has already begun helping astronomers answer important questions about our cosmic origins. It has spotted a monster baby star that is still forming, examined early star-forming galaxies, and witnessed a stage of planet birth that’s never been seen before.
“ALMA has enabled [new] research and made startling discoveries,” says Jewell. “The international scientific community eagerly awaits the new capabilities ALMA will provide now that it is reaching its full potential.”