The Antennae Galaxies, 70 million light-years away ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Astonomers gave the world its first-time peek into the cosmos when they released images Monday from the world's most powerful ground-based telescope in Chile.

The international team behind the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, the world's largest and most complex telescope, gave the first official snapshot of galaxies that visible or infrared-viewing telescopes could not capture.

Radically distinct from the optical telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA will consist of an array of linked 66 radio antennas acting as a single giant telescope, able to detect much longer wavelengths than those of visible light. The telescope isn't completely functional yet, with only 12 of the anticipated 66 radio antennas functioning, but that didn't stop astronomers from giving a sneak peek.

Today marks the recognition of the successful coalition of thousands of people from all over the world all working with the same goal: to build the world's most advanced radio telescope to see into the Universe's coldest, darkest places, where galaxies and stars and perhaps the building blocks of life are created, said Thijs de Graauw, the director of the $1.3 billion radio telescope.

At millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths, astronomers would be able to make out the swirling gas that formed the first stars in the very early universe, over 13 billion years ago.

ALMA has been under construction since 2003. The images from the climate-armored antennas linked via fiber optic cabling are assembled into one large view by one of the world's fastest, special-purpose supercomputers, the ALMA Correlator.

The sharpness, quality, efficiency of its observation are expected to improve dramatically as the observatory grows progressively, at an elevation of 16,500 feet on the Chilean Andres, one of the driest places in the world that has year-round clear skies. 



ALMA officials expect all 66 radio antennas to be built by 2013.

Alma has got such a fantastic increase in sensitivity compared to previous sub-millimetre wave telescopes, we're expecting that, every three minutes that Alma is observing the sky, it will discover one brand new galaxy somewhere in the universe, said John Richer of the University of Cambridge, a project scientist for ALMA.