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World's Largest Radio Telescope ALMA Opens in Chile Today

First Posted: Mar 13, 2013 11:53 AM EDT

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) will officially open Wednesday, 13 March. The telescope is expected to give researchers vital information about the formation of the very first stars of the universe and thus give researchers a view of our cosmic past.

Like trees poking out of the ground, 66 state-of-the-art radio telescopes stand high in Chile's Atacama Desert. They are part of the system that forms the world's largest radio telescope, ALMA.

ALMA is the largest ground-based astronomical project ever conducted, led by Europe, in cooperation with North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile, and also became the most expensive astronomical project - costing more than 1 billion euros. The giant telescope is built in Chile's Atacama Desert at Altiplano de Chajnantor which is located at an altitude of 5,000 meters above sea level. It was designed to withstand difficult conditions in one of the driest places in the world, where temperature differences of up to 50 degrees Celcius and strong winds make it difficult to build anything.

The individual radio telescopes, or antennae, that form the array are the most advanced that have ever been made. They can receive electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths in the submillimeter range. When connected as one, they are like a huge eye - 16 kilometers in diameter.

A large number of the high-tech antennae in the ALMA project were produced in Germany.

They were made with groundbreaking precision techniques - each one had to have the exact same properties and only then could they be connected to the eye of the telescope, the interferometer.

(Photo : REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado)
Parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) project are seen at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama desert, some 1730 km (1074 miles) north of Santiago and 5000 metres above sea level, March 12, 2013. ALMA will be inaugurated on Wednesday and is being constructed by the ESO (European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere) with its partners NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) and NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). ALMA will have 66 high precision antennas which will work together as a single giant telescope to study the universe, molecular gas, dust of stars, galaxies and planetary systems, ESO said.
"What is so very special about this place is that, right here above our heads, there is virtually no water vapor. There is just so little that whatever light is emitted from a heavenly body, galaxy or star, it gets here with no interference" explained Gianni Marconi, an astronomer with the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array, better known as ALMA (Spanish for "soul"), reports AFP.

ALMA uses submillimeter wavelength, which is shorter than radio-wave, but longer than wavelength of visible light, allowing astronomers to look at the formation of planets, reports Space.com.

"It will have a view of the universe that we can't even imagine now," Wolfgang Wild, ESO's European ALMA project manager, told SPACE.com from Munich, Germany.

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