Have you ever wondered what lies beyond our solar system? The Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) is a radio telescope that allows us to explore the universe in unprecedented detail. ALMA has made many significant discoveries since it began operations in 2011. But with upcoming software and hardware upgrades, ALMA is set to collect even more data and produce sharper images. What new mysteries will ALMA uncover in the universe?

ALMA, a telescope in Chile's Atacama Desert, uses 66 high-precision antennas to observe millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. Its upgrades promise even more exciting discoveries about the universe. [Image: The National Radio Astronomy Observatory]
ALMA uses 66 high-precision antennas to observe millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. Its upgrades promise even more exciting discoveries about the universe. [Image: The National Radio Astronomy Observatory]
ALMA is a cutting-edge radio telescope located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.  It is a joint project between several international organizations, including the European Southern Observatory, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, among others.  The telescope is designed to study the universe’s origins, the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets, and the chemical and physical properties of various celestial objects.

ALMA is a truly unique and exceptional astronomical instrument, consisting of an array of 66 high-precision antennas, each with a diameter of 12 meters that work in tandem to deliver unparalleled sensitivity and resolution, particularly in the challenging millimeter and submillimeter wavelength range.

ALMA can penetrate even the densest dust clouds, providing astronomers with an extraordinary opportunity to examine faint and distant stars and galaxies that would otherwise remain obscured from view. In addition to its remarkable precision, ALMA boasts exceptional sensitivity, enabling it to detect incredibly faint radio signals, making it an indispensable tool for probing the furthest depths of the cosmos.

ALMA’s remarkable capacity to integrate and process data from each of its antennas into a single, high-resolution image is a testament to the telescope’s advanced technology.  At the core of this process is the correlator – a powerful supercomputer that processes the vast amounts of information collected by the telescope, creating incredibly detailed images of celestial objects with exceptional resolution. This technology has help astronomers to explore the cosmos with a level of detail and insight that was once thought impossible.

ALMA has made a number of groundbreaking discoveries since it began operations in 2011. For instance, in 2013, the telescope unveiled starburst galaxies that existed earlier in the history of the universe than previously believed to be possible.  Additionally, in 2014, it captured highly detailed images of the protoplanetary disc that surrounds the young star HL Tauri, thereby challenging pre-existing models of planetary formation. Finally, in 2015, ALMA helped to observe the elusive Einstein ring phenomenon, shedding new light on the interaction between light and massive objects.  These incredible accomplishments speak to the immense potential of this powerful telescope, and serve to highlight its critical role in enhancing our understanding of the cosmos.

ALMA is located in Chile’s Atacama Desert, at an altitude of 16,570 feet (5,050 meters) above sea level on the Chajnantor plateau. This strategic positioning is due to the susceptibility of millimeter and submillimeter waves to atmospheric water vapor absorption, which renders observations impossible on the Earth’s surface. Moreover, the region’s unique characteristics as the driest place on the planet makes it ideal for conducting astronomical observations. The desert’s cloud-free and moisture-free skies allow for unobstructed, high-quality observations of celestial bodies, making it a prime location for studying the universe.

In a continuous effort to extend the boundaries of astronomical exploration, ALMA is preparing to undergo a series of upgrades to enhance its hardware and software. With these enhancements, ALMA will have the capability to gather an even greater amount of data and produce higher resolution images, allowing astronomers to unlock new insights into the formation and development of the universe. These upgrades hold the promise of even more astonishing discoveries in the future of astronomical research.