Chile opens world’s largest observatory


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

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array — whose acronym, ALMA, means “soul” in Spanish — was inaugurated on a desert plateau 5,000 meters above sea level at a ceremony attended by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and other dignitaries.

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

Amid excited applause, 59 of the facility’s 66 antennas slowly began to rotate and point toward the heavens. By October, all them will be fully operational.

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

ALMA is a joint effort among North American, European and Asian agencies. It is located near Pedro de Atacama, a desert town popular with tourists. With almost no humidity or vegetation to block its view of the heavens, ALMA’s antennas range in diameter from 7 to 12 meters.

The scientists who homed in on the site for ALMA said they were looking for a place that had a high altitude, low humidity, clear skies and fairly easy access.

ALMA’s ultraprecise equipment will be used to seek answers to big questions.

Unlike optical or infrared telescopes, ALMA can capture the faint glow and gas present in the formation of the first stars, galaxies and planets.

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