The Antennae Galaxy

ALMA, the world's most powerful ground-based telescope, officially opened for astronomers on Monday after a decade of planning and construction. The telescope under construction is already flooded with hundreds of potential projects eager astronomers flock to explore the building blocks of the universe.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is a global joint project among Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

As the largest and most complex telescope to date, ALMA revealed its first snapshot of the universe - a stunning image of the Antennae Galaxies lying 45 million light-years away. The new image captured by ALMA shows an unfamiliar face of the cosmos, because the snapshot includes the youngest stars, which were previously unobservable hidden behind the space dust.

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.

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.

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, said Mark McKinnon, North American ALMA Project Manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Va. This capability can only get much better as ALMA nears completion.

ALMA's first round of scientific observations, dubbed Early Science, will be limited to 100 projects.

Over 900 project proposals were submitted from around the world, competing to be the first ones to explore the universe using ALMA.

The flood of applications represents a level of demand which is unprecedented across any ground-based or space telescope, said Lewis Ball, ALMA deputy director.

The successful projects were selected on the basis of their scientific merit, regional diversity, and relevance to ALMA's major science goals, which include the search of the origin of the universe.

Among the projects to be carried out in the next nine months is the hunt for the building blocks of solar systems by a team led by David Wilner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Wilner's team aims to observe the birth ring orbiting AU Microscopii, a 12-million-year old star 33 light years away. Only ALMA can help discover clumps in the dusty asteroid belts that will lead to unveiling unseen planets, Wilner said

In another project, Japanese astronomer, Masami Ouchi of the University of Tokyo will observe Himiko, a very distant galaxy that produces at least 100 suns' worth of stars every year and surrounded by a giant, bright nebula.

While other telescopes are unable to unveil the reason of Himiko's brightness and the way its giant hot nebula was formed from the dark universe around it, ALMA can show us the cold gas deep in Himiko's star-forming nebula, tracing the movements and activities inside, and we will finally see how galaxies started forming at the cosmic dawn, said Ouchi.

Many stars are formed in dense clouds of dusty gas that absorb the light from the stars. Modern optical and infrared telescopes cannot observe these stars blocked by the clouds of dust. ALMA, however, has the ability to detect the radiation emitted by the dust at sub-millimeter wavelengths.

With all 66 radio antennas expected to be built by 2013, ALMA carries the humanity's hope to unfold the origins of the universe by discovering and analyzing the oldest stars and galaxies. The cutting-edge telescope could also image extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, that may support alien life or human life.