PHOTOS: Getting Ready for the World’s Largest Radio Telescope

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers are preparing for a new array that will stretch across 10 miles

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Babak Tafreshi / Science Source

A Portal into Time

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(Babak Tafreshi / Science Source)

Star Power In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile’s Andes, on the 16,500-foot-high Chajnantor Plateau, astronomers are getting ready to peer at the origins of the universe, and investigate phenomena from black holes to the Big Bang with a revolutionary new instrument.

The ALMA

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(ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO))

The $1.3 billion Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope—the largest ever built—will be inaugurated in March, eventually boasting 66 antennas stretching across ten miles. Chajnantor’s dry, thin atmosphere creates ideal conditions for reception of radio waves from outer space. (The antennas, above, are shown against a long-exposure image of the night sky.)

Glimpse Into the Unknown

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(ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO))

ALMA will yield clues to the darkest, coldest, most distant corners of the universe, invisible until now. Already, in 2011, researchers using the partially completed telescope got a stunning look at a system of new planets orbiting the star Formalhaut, 25 light-years away.

Origin of Life

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(ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO))

They also probed the origins of life when they detected, for the first time, molecules of glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar and essential biochemical building block, in gases surrounding a Sun-like star 400 light-years away. And they discovered a mysterious spiral structure around a red star 1,500 light-years away—the first indication of an unknown companion star orbiting nearby.