Science Scope

Looking for the origins of the universe? Head to Chile

Posting in Cities

One of the largest ground-based astronomical projects will feature a $1 billion array of radio telescopes used to study the universe's origins.

The conditions optimal for studying the heavens aren't exactly optimal for human life.

Namely, they are nosebleed-inducing high altitude, distance from cities with night-sky-polluting lights and desert conditions, where rain droplets can't interfere with radio signals.

In short, the Atacama plateau in northern Chile.

That's where scientists are building one of the world's largest Earth-based astronomical projects, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA.

By its completion next year, the $1 billion project, which opened last October, will feature 66 radio antennas spread over the 16,597-feet-high plateau in the Andes that will help scientists from all over the world study the universe's origins.

What ALMA scientists hope to see

The project will make possible leaps in the understanding of the universe.

Instead of light waves, ALMA's radio telescopes will detect radio waves, which allow scientists to explore dark parts of the universe, such as the stuff that forms stars -- clouds of cold gas.

Scientists there will also be able to explore "cold gas tracers,"  which are the ashes of exploded stars from the "cosmic dawn" -- just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

ALMA astronomers may also be able to detect the spots where the first galaxies were formed, uncover the solar systems that could support life and even find water-holding planets.

But ALMA scientists are cautious about what they will find. “We won’t be able to see life, but perhaps signatures of life,” ALMA’s director Thijs de Graauw, a Dutch astronomer, told The New York Times.

For more photos of ALMA, check out this gallery, which shows ALMA's telescopes, the landscape of Atacama, and the living quarters of the scientists working at ALMA.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: The New York Times

photo: ALMA site at Chajnantor showing eight antennas. (Image courtesy of National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Associated Universities, Inc. and National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Associated Universities, Inc./European Southern Observatory)

Share this

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure