Thousands of scientists from around the world have competed to be among the first few researchers to explore some of the darkest, coldest, furthest, and most hidden secrets of the cosmos with this new astronomical tool.
Thus opens the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announcement that the ALMA observatory is open for business.
At present, only 12 of the eventual 66 millimeter wavelength radio antennas were used to produce the image above, left. Moreover, the antennas were at most 125 meters apart. When the observatory is running at full capacity, some of the radio antennas will be 16 kilometers apart.
Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO, noted that:
Even in this very early phase ALMA already outperforms all other submillimetre arrays. 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.
Initially, 900 proposals were received for this new telescope, which is nine times the usual submission for a new telescope. Three of the proposed observations are detailed below:
David Wilner at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was accepted and his team targets the star AU Microscopii, 33 light years away and only 1% the age of our Sun. The goal is to visualize the “birth ring” of planetismals around this young star. He is looking for clumps of material in the asteroid region that are markers of unseen planets.
Simon Casassus, from the University of Chile, is searching the debris disc of HD142527, a young star that is 400 light-years away. This distant solar systems contains dust, gas, and rocks surrounding the star. The hunt is on for frozen water and organic molecules. The disc contains enough material for a dozen Jupiters, but the most interesting feature is a very wide gap in which there may be one or more giant gas planets.
Heino Falcke, an astronomer at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands is looking at Sagittarius A* and the black hole four million times the mass of our Sun. The goal is to image the gas clouds caught up in the immense gravitational pull of the black hole. Falcke notes that, “This will let us study this monster’s messy feeding habits. We think that some of the gas may be escaping its grip, at close to the speed of light.”
Below, we see some of the radio antennas deployed on the desert floor at Atacama.