If you've ever wondered how stars are formed and planets coalesce into being from swirls of cosmic dust, you're in luck. According to a report from the BBC, the Altacama large millimetre/submillimetre array in Chile is online and operational, with a brief to study the cosmic dawn.
Consisting of an array of 20 antennae huge built on the highest plateau of the Atacama desert near the Chile and Bolivian border, Alma (for short) is the largest and most complex telescope ever constructed. It's been under construction since 2003, and has been able to probe even deeper into space as each antenna has been brought online. It is hoped that there will be 66 antennae operational by 2013, and each installation will enable the telescope to probe deeper into space, and in greater detail.
With the installation of the 20th antenna, scientists are now able to look deep into space and see events which have never been witnessed before, in the hope of gathering clues to support theories on how stellar bodies come into being. As Alma is not an optical telescope such as, for example, the Hubble, it can gather and interpret light invisible to the human eye, picking out the clouds of dense gas which give birth to new stars.
The first images to be recorded from the Alma array include a spectacular shot of the collision of the Antenna Galaxies, complete with images of gas clouds entirely absent from previous Hubble Space Telescope images.
Astronomers are excited at the possibilities afforded by the Alma array. Another early project will be to point the array at AU Microscopii, a young star estimated to be just 1% of the age of our own Sun. The theory and early observations suggest that the star has a 'birth ring' of matter surrounding it, and planets could be in the earliest stages of formation. Scientists hope to observe this process in more detail than ever before.
They also hope to study the supermassive black hole which exists at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Sagittarius A is a mysterious object which has been obscured from optical telescopes by dust, but it is hoped that the Alma array will finally give astronomers a close look at the black hole.
The eventual goal of the telescope is to study the beginning of the Universe itself, to receive light from the first stars that started to shine just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Dr Diego Garcia, a scientific operations astronomer at the Chilean site, has referred to the Alma array as 'the pyramids of the 21st Century', which reflects the sheer scale and ambition of this new generation of telescope. If all goes well, scientists will soon know a great deal about the cosmic processes which give rise to galaxies, stars and eventually planets.