World's largest telescope set to reveal universe's secrets
The world's largest telescope officially goes into operation Wednesday in Chile's Atacama desert, giving astronomers the opportunity to peer deeper into the universe. Located high on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes at an altitude of 5,00 metres, the ALMA telescope, which stands for Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub Millimetre Array, is composed of 66 high-precision antennas spread over distances of up to 16 kilometres.
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013
"This is similar to the move from the naked eye to the first telescope," explained Wolfgang Wild, project leader at ALMA's European project office. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching near the southern German city of Munich.
Constructed at a cost of more than 1.3 billion dollars, ALMA is a collaboration project between North America, Europe and Asia, and is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence. It is hoped ALMA will help improve knowledge about the history of the universe by providing images of the birth of stars and the formation of galaxies.
The site in the Chilean Andes was chosen for the ALMA telescope because it a very high, dry and expansive area was necessary. "There weren't so many places around the world that came into the frame," said Wild. "I heard that a train station somewhere in Tibet is the only other building that has been constructed at a higher altitude."
Scientists already generally know what scientific information can be obtained from ALMA, but Wild still expects surprises. "It is a bit like Galileo. He certainly did not expect to discover moons around Jupiter and was surprised when he did," he noted. Over 500 people from nations across the globe have worked on the construction of ALMA and around 100 staff will continue to be employed at the observatory following its official opening by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. However, ALMA is not the end of the road when it comes to research and development in terrestrial telescopes. The ESO has plans to complete the construction of the world's largest telescope by 2023.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be built at Cerro Armazones, a 3,000-metre mountain situated in the central part of Chile's Atacama desert. Unlike ALMA, the E-ELT with its 39-metre main mirror will operate as the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world and be able to observe hot stellar matter. While ALMA is designed to study light from some of the coldest objects in the universe in an attempt to learn more about the formation of stars and planets, E-ELT looks at the stars when they are formed and hot.