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ALMA radio telescope exposes 12 billion-year-old galaxies

When we look up at the sky, the worlds beyond our own atmosphere are more than just mysteries—they’re time capsules waiting to be unpacked and studied to expose our own galaxy’s past and origin.  The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in the Chilean Andes is helping scientists to do just that.  Some recently released findings are proving that no amount of discoveries in our lifetime can lead to a complete understanding of how the universe operates and where mankind will end up hundreds and thousands of years from now.

The ALMA radio telescope is a $1.4 billion project involving the collaborations of multiple nations, and it is due to the combined efforts of scientists worldwide that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s really beyond our solar system.  As a matter fact, the ALMA telescope has transported researchers back 12 billion years, and denuding layers upon layers of the estimated 13.7 billion-year-old universe. 

(The incomplete ALMA telescope has already begun to help us peek billions of years into the past.  A year ago, only 16 antennas were fully functional, but in total there will be 66 antennas when the ALMA array completes.)

In one such finding, researchers believe, through data gathered by ALMA, galaxies started forming shortly after the Big Bang.  About 1-2 billion years right after the Big Bang, star-forming galaxies called starburst galaxies began appearing, and, like many other phenomenon out there, it took billions of years for the images to each our eyes. 

“It just tells us earlier in the history of the universe, there might have been large scale galaxy formation and star formation that might have been earlier than we thought,” said astrophysicist Yashar Hezaveh, who led and co-authored some of the studies utilizing ALMA.  “So perhaps it’s going to help us understand some of the processes that could cause the formation of these galaxies.”

Also, according to the data gathered by ALMA and other instruments, these starburst galaxies were forming stars at a rate of about 4,000 a year, which is far more than our Milky Way’s one star formation a year.  Hezaveh is hoping that further observations using the ALMA telescope can provide scientists with further insights as to why these early galaxies had such fast star formation rates. 

Exciting as it may be that researchers have only begun to see deeper into space—and, by extension, back in time—the ALMA telescope is no nowhere near its maximum observational potential.  The data released this week was gathered using only 16 antennas, but the telescope’s full array actually involves 50 more antennas.  Meaning, once the ALMA telescope has all 66 antennas up and running, we’ll be able to see much more clearly and in detail the formation processes of the universe.

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