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Supermassive Telescope Hears What the Early Universe Looks Like

Illustration for article titled Supermassive Telescope Hears What the Early Universe Looks Like

Yeah, you read that headline right. This supermassive radio telescope, set to be completed in Chile in 2012 (you're seeing an artist's rendering), listens to frequencies between the infrared and radio spectrum. It tunes in particles that will give astronomers an unprecedented portrait of the early universe, as well as planetary and star formations in our current volume of space. It's called the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA for short). One of the best parts of the array is that it comes with giant antenna transporters that allow researchers to reconfigure it on the fly. Just last week, the transporters arrived in Chile. Want to see one?

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According to Anneila Sargent, a Caltech professor and ALMA Board member:

Most of the photons in the Universe are in the wavelength range that ALMA will receive, and ALMA will give us our first high-resolution views at these wavelengths. This will be a tremendous advancement for astronomy and open one of our science's last frontiers.

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Illustration for article titled Supermassive Telescope Hears What the Early Universe Looks Like

Here you can see one of the giant antenna transporters being lifted off a boat in Chile. Antenna mounted on it will move the dishes into different configurations, making the observatory more flexible and allowing researchers to conduct a wide range of studies, ranging from planets being formed to galaxies formed at the beginning of the universe. Here's one of the antennae.

Illustration for article titled Supermassive Telescope Hears What the Early Universe Looks Like

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory explained ALMA's capabilities in greater detail:

The millimeter and submillimeter wavelength range lies between what is traditionally considered radio waves and infrared waves. ALMA, a system using up to 66 high-precision dish antennas working together, will provide astronomers with dramatically greater sensitivity, the ability to detect faint objects, and resolving power, the ability to see fine detail, than has ever before been available in this range . . .

Astronomers expect ALMA to make extremely important contributions in a a variety of scientific specialties. The new telescope system will be a premier tool for studying the first stars and galaxies that emerged from the cosmic "dark ages" billions of years ago. These objects now are seen at great cosmic distances, with most of their light stretched out to millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths by the expansion of the Universe.

In the more nearby Universe, ALMA will provide an unprecedented ability to study the processes of star and planet formation. Unimpeded by the dust that obscures visible-light observations, ALMA will be able to reveal the details of young, still-forming stars, and is expected to show young planets still in the process of developing. In addition, ALMA will allow scientists to learn in detail about the complex chemistry of the giant clouds of gas and dust that spawn stars and planetary systems.

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Images courtesy of ALMA/ESO/NRAO/NAOJ.

Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array [Official Site]

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DISCUSSION

@aarchiba: You don't want them on tracks (at least straight tracks) because that limits the so-called 'UV coverage'. Basically, if they are all in a line, like the VLA, then your image fidelity kinda sucks the proverbial butt, with all sorts of weird ringing pattens and such. Curvy tracks would be fine, but I assume that isn't done because it would be very expensive. The telescopes are only moved about once a semester or so, so it's not such a big deal.

But I actually joined this thread to mention that radio telescopes don't hear things - they see things. Even though the wavelengths are longer, and those wavelengths are sometimes used to carry sound (AM/FM, cell phones, etc.), it's still light that we're looking at, so it's still much more like seeing than it is like hearing. It's just very, very, very red light. Fricking Ellie Arroway, we're never going to live that down.

On a personal note, ALMA rulez.