The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), claimed to be the most complex ground-based astronomy observatory, has officially opened for astronomers. The observatory is located 16,500 feet above sea level, in northern Chile. Celebrating the start of ALMA's Early Science observations, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has released an image of a merging pair of galaxies as seen by the radio telescope.

For the start of Early Science observations, only 16 of the eventual 66 radio telescopes will be available, the NRAO said in a statement.


This picture of the ALMA radio antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, 16,500 feet above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science operations. Nineteen antennas are on the plateau. Photo: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

The 'M' in ALMA stands for 'millimeter/submillimeter' waves, because ALMA views the universe in these long wavelengths of light, much longer than the optical light we see with our eyes, Dr. Alison Peck, an NRAO astronomer serving as ALMA Deputy Project Scientist during its construction, said.

With millimeter and submillimeter waves, astronomers can watch planet formation, investigate astrochemistry and detect the light reaching us from the universe's earliest galaxies. According to Peck, ALMA's first projects will display its capabilities in all of these fields and many others.


Multiwavelength composite of interacting galaxies NGC 4038/4039, the Antennae, showing VLA radio (blues), past and recent starbirths in HST and CTIO optical (whites and pinks), and a selection of current star-forming regions in ALMA's mm/submm (orange and yellows) showing detail surpassing all other views in these wavelengths. Photo: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The first image published from ALMA is of the Antennae Galaxies. According to an NRAO statement, the detailed views of star-formation in the Antennae Galaxies confirm that this new telescope, which is still under development, will surpass all others of its kind.

The image, which is a composite of views of the Antennae taken with several different types of telescopes, including test data from ALMA, shows hidden star birth nestled inside dust clouds.

The collision of these two galaxies has turned them into an impressive star-making factory. With Hubble, we've seen the formation of thousands of massive super star clusters, each with thousands or even millions of young stars in them, said team leader, Dr. Brad Whitmore of the Space Telescope Science Institute, With ALMA, we will focus on the heart of the collision, the interaction region where the two galaxies are crashing together.

The Antennae Galaxies

ALMA Opens Its Eyes from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

The Antennae Galaxies are a pair of colliding galaxies with dramatically distorted shapes. About six hundred million years ago, this peculiar object was two separate, beautiful spiral galaxies passing by each other for the first time. Now it has turned out to be the youngest and nearest colliding galaxy pair ever found.

All 66 radio telescopes scheduled to be part of the ALMA project should be operational by 2013, combining into a system powered by one of the world's fastest, specially-designed supercomputers.