It took a little over six months since the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile’s northern desert went online in October 2011 for the first paper to be published using its findings.
And the researcher is a 27-year-old Chilean woman, yet to receive her doctorate in astronomy.
“I was really excited to be told my work was the first refereed paper accepted for publication based on ALMA observations,” Cinthya Herrera told told BBC News, “but also I was extremely proud because ALMA is in Chile.”
This is a monumental achievement given the international collaboration that is going into the constructing of the radio telescope, whose unique technology makes it one of the most sought-after pieces of astronomical infrastructure in the world.
Expected to be fully operational in 2013, ALMA measures electromagnetic rays 1,000 times longer than visible light, which allows astronomers to study very distant objects from Earth, including some of the first structures to form in the universe.
Around a third of the planned 66 antennae have been constructed on the Chajnantor plateau, 16,405 ft (5,000m) above sea level in the Atacama desert, but already it is the largest radio telescope observing network in the world, and it’s growing by the week.
This cutting-edge technology proved essential in Herrera’s research.
“With ALMA and its wonderful resolution, we were able to trace the molecular mass of the gas and the structures that will form stars; and using another telescope run by the European Southern Observatory, we were able to trace the energy dissipation,” Herrera said.
Her study involved the observation of star-forming clusters resulting from the collision and merger of pair of two spiral galaxies, known as “The Antennae,” in the “nearby” Corvus constellation – about 70 million light-years from Earth.
Herrera’s work is set to be the first of thousands of publications as scientists predict that the ALMA facility will revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
“For the next few decades, I think ALMA will be one of the greatest telescopes on Earth,” said Herrera.