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ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
A combined view of the Antennae Galaxies, taken by the ALMA radio telescope array and the Hubble Space Telescope.
updated 10/3/2011 11:34:01 AM ET 2011-10-03T15:34:01

After years of planning, construction and assembly, a gigantic observatory billed as the world's most complex array of ground-based telescopes has opened its eyes in South America and captured its first image.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is now officially open for business high in the Chilean Andes. The huge $1.3 billion radio telescope, a collaboration of many nations and institutions, should help astronomers explore some of the coldest and most distant objects in the universe, researchers said.

"We went to one of the most extreme locations on Earth to build the world's largest array of millimeter/sub-millimeter telescopes having a level of technical sophistication that was merely a dream only a decade ago," said Mark McKinnon, North American ALMA project manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., in a statement. "This truly is a great occasion!" [See the first photo and video from the ALMA radio observatory]

To mark the moment, scientists released an early image snapped by ALMA. It shows the Antennae Galaxies (also known as NGC 4038 and 4039), a pair of colliding spiral galaxies found about 70 million light-years away in the constellation Corvus (The Crow). 

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ALMA imaged the two galaxies in two different wavelength ranges during the observatory's early testing phase, researchers said. Future images will be much sharper, they added, as more antennas in the array come online.

ALMA is a complex of 40-foot (12-meter) radio telescopes sitting at an elevation of 16,500 feet (5,000 m) on the Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile. These individual antennas each pick up light in the millimeter/submillimeter range — about 1,000 times longer than visible-light wavelengths.

Observing in these long wavelengths will allow ALMA to detect extremely cold objects, such as the gas clouds from which stars and planets form, researchers said. The observatory should also be able to peer at very distant objects, opening a window in the early universe. 

A huge astronomy complex
The individual telescopes in the ALMA array are spread out over considerable distances, but they'll work as a team. A supercomputer working at 17 quadrillion operations per second will assemble each antenna's observations, forming one large view.

Currently, the array harbors 19 individual telescopes, though 66 should come online by 2013, researchers said. The array will ultimately be about 11 miles (18 km) wide.

Still, nearly 20 huge radio antennas are enough to start observing the universe. And ALMA just began doing that officially on Friday (Sept. 30), when the telescope kicked off its nine-month "Early Science" phase.

Clamoring for telescope time
ALMA received more than 900 applications to use the telescope during the Early Science stage, suggesting that astronomers are eager to break in the new tool.

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The observatory could take on 100 of these projects, so a lot of science could get done in the next nine months.

"With millimeter and submillimeter waves, we can watch planet formation, investigate astrochemistry and detect the light that is finally reaching us from the universe’s earliest galaxies," said Alison Peck, an NRAO astronomer serving as ALMA deputy project scientist during construction. "ALMA’s first projects will flex the telescope’s capabilities in all of these fields and many, many more." 

Construction of ALMA will continue during the Early Science phase of observations, researchers said.

The observatory is a partnership involving Europe, Japan and North America, in cooperation with Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory, in Japan by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences in cooperation with Taiwan's Academia Sinica, and in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada and the National Science Council of Taiwan.

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Video: Radio telescope opens eyes to cosmos

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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