Chile’s record-breaking ALMA telescope captures first images

When it is completed in 2013, the massive telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert will be able to take unprecedented pictures of outer space using 66 antennas spread out over 10 miles.

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The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in northern Chile began functioning officially earlier this week, capturing some spectacular images of the Antennae Galaxies located 70 million light years from Earth.

Although it is still in construction, ALMA’s 16 radio antennas make it the largest telescope of its type in the world and astronomers from all over the globe are lining up to use it.

The project’s coordinators, which include the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), have received over 900 applications to use the telescope but were only able to accept 100 for the first nine months of operation.

The pioneering telescope measures electromagnetic rays with wavelengths 1,000 times longer than visible light, enabling astronomers to study extremely cold objects in deep space, such as the remote dust and gas clouds where planets and stars are formed.

“Even at such an early stage, ALMA already surpasses all existing sub-millimeter array telescopes,” Tim de Zeeuw, general director of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), told El Mercurio.

“Reaching this milestone is a tribute to the notable effort of many scientists and engineers from the region and around the world who are associated with ALMA and who have made this possible.”

When it is completed in 2013, the huge telescope will have a total of 66 antennas spaced out over 10 miles (16km) at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, located at over 16,400ft (5,000m) above sea level in the clear-skied Atacama Desert.

Together the various antennas will function as a single telescope, providing unprecedented images of outer space.

The images captured with the telescope earlier this week were obtained using 12 interconnected antennas and as the telescope grows, astronomers say the quality of the pictures will improve exponentially.

“We are living in a historical moment for science, especially astronomy, and perhaps for humanity as well as we begin to use the best observatory that has been created until now,” ALMA’s director, Thijs de Graauw, told El Mercurio.