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ALMA telescope, the world's largest, will go deeper and farther than ever before

Scientists and politicians inaugurated a new telescope array, known as ALMA, on Wednesday. The equipment should shed light on planet formation, according to researchers. It is located in Chile where skies are clean and dry, optimal for astronomy.

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ALMA, a new radio telescope array, is built high up in the Chilean Atacama desert, at an altitude of 16,400 feet (5,000 meters).

Clara Moskowitz/SPACE.com

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High up in the Chilean desert, on a plateau so dry and red it looks like it could be Mars, dozens of giant telescope antennas stare at the sky in unison.

They are ALMA radio telescope — the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array — and together they can see deeper and farther in long-wavelength millimeter light than any instrument before. The $1.3 billion observatory, the product of 30 years of planning and 10 years of construction, is already sighting new planets in the process of forming around stars, and some of the most distant, ancient galaxies known.

To celebrate the inauguration of ALMA, officials and scientists gathered today (March 13) here at the observatory's Operations Support Facility, base camp for the telescope, which, at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), is so high that scientists must breathe supplemental oxygen to work there.

"We are very proud to inaugurate this great project in which so many people have worked so hard for so long," said the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, who visited ALMA for the occasion. "ALMA will allow us to get deeper into the universe, but also into our own nature and our own lives."

To close the ceremony, Pinera gave an ALMA scientist permission to direct all of the radio dishes to rotate in unison to face the center of the galaxy. The great white bowls swiveled together in a huge arc, against a backdrop of swelling music, to the applause and cheers of the scientists watching via video from the Operations Support Facility. [8 Cool Facts About the ALMA Telescope]

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