World’s largest and most powerful space observatory opens in Chile

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Workers of ALMA and visitors gather around a special vehicle as it loads a parabolic antenna during the inauguration.

LLANO CHAJNANTOR, Chile: The world’s largest ground-based observatory opened for business Wednesday in the desert of northern Chile, wielding unprecedented power to peer into the remotest regions of the universe.

The ALMA space observatory was inaugurated here on an arid plateau around 5,000 meters above sea level, at a ceremony attended by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and other dignitaries and officials.

“ALMA is a huge telescope 16 km in diameter,” said the facility’s director Thijs de Graauw, as the huge observatory was declared officially opened.

Gianni Marconi, an astronomer at the massive ground array of telescopes, recently proclaimed to AFP that ALMA is “the largest observatory that has ever been built.”

ALMA – short for the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array, an acronym which means “soul” in Spanish – is a joint effort among North American, European and Asian agencies.

The observatory is located near Pedro de Atacama, a desert town popular with tourists.

Located at an altitude of some 5,000 meters and with almost no humidity or vegetation to block its view of the heavens, ALMA is outfitted with 66 antennas ranging in diameter from 7 meters to 12 meters.

“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” Marconi said.

Scientists who homed in on this site for ALMA said they were looking for a place that had a high altitude, low humidity, sunny weather and fairly easy logistical access.

De Graaw told AFP recently that ALMA’s ultra-precise equipment would be used to seek answers to a broad range of big questions – star formation, the birth of planets and how the system was created after the Big Bang, among many others.

“It is a revolution in the history of the universe in the realm of millimetric and submillimetric waves, which can look through clouds of dust and focus on the formation of stars themselves,” he said.

“Telescopes cannot see what is happening inside these clouds. With ALMA, we can. And that is like opening a new window.”

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