Deep space

Chile and world’s largest observatory receives finishing touch

With the delivery of the 66th and final antenna, the ALMA telescope is now complete, opening the door for exploration of distant parts of the Universe.

Thursday, November 14, 2013  
Composed of 66 antennas operating as one super-powerful telescope the ALMA project in Chile is at th Composed of 66 antennas operating as one super-powerful telescope the ALMA project in Chile is at the forefront of astronomical investigation. Photo via ESO



High up in the Andes mountains in Northern Chile, the product of years of work and a huge budget, the world’s most exciting center for astronomical research is finally on the verge of full power.

The 66th and final antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project has just been handed over to the observatory team.

Spread out over distances of up to 10 miles, the high-precision antennas form an innovative design, working together as one single telescope known as an interferometer. The largest ground based observatory in the the world, ALMA uses light at very low frequencies — between infrared and radio waves — to observe distant phenomena.

Thanks to this unique structure, ALMA is able to image very cold parts of the universe which emit very low levels of light. Astronomers can, for example, study distant galaxies or the dense tracts of gas and dust, known as molecular clouds, where new stars are born. These regions of the universe are often dark and obscured in visible light, but they are observable in the millimeter and submillimeter part of the spectrum allowing experts a glimpse into what has long remained a mystery.

One difficulty associated with low frequency light, though, is the extremely dry conditions needed for it to work effectively. Hence ALMA’s location in Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes. Located high up in the Atacama Desert, the area’s extremely arid climate is perfect for millimeter and submillimeter observation.

The ALMA Observatory was inaugurated by President Sebastián Piñera in March 2013. This event marked the completion of all major systems of the telescope, but it is only now, with the delivery of the final antenna, that ALMA will finally be completed and begin to operate at its full potential.

Wolfgang Wild, the European ALMA Project Manager, explained the significance of this latest development in the joint global observatory.

“This is an important milestone for the ALMA Observatory since it enables astronomers in Europe and elsewhere to use the complete ALMA telescope, with its full sensitivity and collecting area,” said Wild.

Due to its almost non-existent humidity and clear skies, the Atacama is the world’s premier location for astronomy. Chile is home to almost half the world’s telescope infrastructure, and this is set to increase to over two thirds in the next decade.

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