ALMA observatory hunts for universe’s birth

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

ALMA supercomputer
This is ALMA’s brain, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

In an extremely ambitious project, researchers from 19 countries have teamed up in order to watch the birth of planets, stars, and maybe the very universe. This is made possible by a $1.3 billion observatory known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is a radio telescope that can see wavelengths of light not normally visible to humans.

Researchers using ALMA have already made some incredible discoveries, but they are hoping to see for themselves how the universe was born.

The observatory is made up of 66 antennas spread over a plateau in Chile known as the Atacama Desert, which was chosen specifically for its insanely high altitude.

Unlike optical telescopes – which detect light visible to the human eye – ALMA’s antennas can detect a special invisible energy known as radio waves. In fact, the antennas are accurate enough to see something less than the width of a human hair, which is just as impressive as ALMA’s fast-thinking brain.

When the antennas collect data, it is sent to and processed by ALMA’s supercomputer, which is about as powerful as 3 million laptops! According to researchers, the computer has to be able to condense the information from all antennas in a “femtosecond”, or a millionth of a billionth of a second! The results allow researchers to see the universe like never before.

Since light takes a long time to travel over long distances, researchers can use this property to essentially look back in time. Whereas the optical Hubble Space Telescope can detect very young stars and planets, ALMA can witness the same celestial bodies being born. It can also see different types of objects in dark spaces that appear empty to optical telescopes.

There’s still a ton more research to conduct with the ALMA, but scientists are sure that whatever they find will surely be as astonishing as the universe itself.

Images courtesy of ALMA.