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On March 13th, 2013, hundreds of scientists, government officials and journalists made the trek to Northern Chile to witness the official inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array or ALMA, the world's most powerful ground-based telescope.
Unlike other telescopes, ALMA comprises of 66 antennas most measuring about 40-feet in diameter. They are all set up to collaborate and produce one image which is transmitted to the fastest computer ever used on an astronomical site that processes the data into one final picture. The antennas can be remotely steered to zoom in onto any section of the sky that the scientists want to focus on and, with the help of giant transport vehicles, also moved around within the 16-km plateau they are currently situated in.
Not only is the telescope's resolution ten times sharper than that of the Hubble telescope, but it can also, detect radio signals, which means that ALMA will be able to bypass the dense clouds of deep space and look beyond. This gives researchers hope that they will finally get a glimpse of the galaxies that were formed right after the Big Bang. If the images produced by just the few working antennas in the past are any indication, they may be right.
In order to maximize the visibility, ALMA was built in the world's driest desert, the Atacama, which boasts nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air, lack of light pollution and almost zero radio interference from surrounding cities. In addition, it has been built at an elevation of 16,500 feet - well above the Earth's atmosphere, assuring scientists of the crispest possible pictures. In fact, the altitude is so high that scientists working at the observatory have to often use oxygen masks.
Researchers are hoping that this $1.3 billion USD Observatory, a 10-year joint effort between the scientists of North America, Asia and Europe, will finally solve mysteries like how individual stars were formed. This in turn, could enlighten them about how the sun, planets and ultimately, how life as we know it, came into existence - So stay tuned!
Resources: theverge.com,huffingtonpost.com, dailymail.co.uk