Mammoth Astronomy Project Goes Live High in the Andes
World's biggest radio telescope will look into darkest regions of space
By Mark Russell,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 13, 2013 7:57 AM CDT
Radio antennas facing the sky from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, from Sept. 27, 2012.   (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

(Newser) – Today marks the launch of what the Miami Herald calls "one of the most ambitious astronomy projects in the history of mankind": the world's largest radio telescope. The $1.4 billion Atacama Large Millimeter Array finds a home 16,400 feet above sea level in Chile's Andes Mountains, and consists of 66 radio dishes (though the last 12 won't be ready until October). Each clocks in at between 23 feet and 39 feet in diameter and weighs around 100 tons, and can pick up radio signals from space. But what makes ALMA so noteworthy is its ability to use the dishes as one, greatly boosting its power.

"In fact, it’s more powerful than all of the other radio telescopes in the world put together," says one astronomer. With such amazing resolution, ALMA will delve into the darkest parts of the universe, where optical telescopes are effectively useless. Astronomers also hope to learn about dark matter, identify new planets, and even find signs of life there. "What ALMA can do is zoom into those areas where planets are being formed and see if those ingredients[for life] are present," says another astrophysicist. Interesting side note: ALMA's location was a carefully chosen one; the altitude makes for a bone-dry area, which prevents moisture from interfering with the signals the dishes pick up.