First images released from ALMA radio telescope

More than sixteen thousand feet up in Chile, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), is officially open and has released its first images.

ALMA is an array of linked antennas acting as a single giant telescope, and works in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths – much longer wavelengths than those of visible light. This allows astronomers to study extremely cold objects, as well as very distant objects in the early universe.

It’s still not complete – only a third of its eventual 66 radio antennas are in place, and they’re separated by just 125 meters, rather than the maximum 16 kilometres – but it’s already exciting astronomers.

“Even in this very early phase ALMA already outperforms all other submillimetre arrays,” says Tim de Zeeuw, director general of ESO, the European partner in ALMA.

“Reaching this milestone is a tribute to the impressive efforts of the many scientists and engineers in the ALMA partner regions around the world who made it possible.”

The first image to be published shows the Antennae Galaxies, a pair of colliding galaxies with dramatically distorted shapes.

It’s the youngest and nearest colliding galaxy pair ever found. And the image reveals something that can’t be seen in visible light: the clouds of dense, cold gas from which new stars form.

“ALMA’s test views of the Antennae show us star-forming regions on a level of detail that no other telescope on Earth or in space has attained,” says said Dr Mark McKinnon, North American ALMA Project Manager from the NRAO. “This capability can only get much better as ALMA nears completion.”

ALMA’s only been able to accept about a hundred projects for its first nine-month phase of operations, but the team’s received over 900 proposals for observations.

Early projects will include a hunt for planets around AU Microscopii, a very young star 33 light-years away, as well as HD142527, a young star 400 light-years away. Astronomers also hope to peer through surrounding dust and gas to see Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole four million times the mass of our sun.

ALMA’s expected to be completed in 2013.