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Telescope set to reveal 'Big Bang'

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Currently just one prototype antenna has been built on the ALMA site in northern Chile.

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(CNN) -- An ambitious project to build the world's largest radio telescope high in the Chilean Andes looks set to give astronomers their best ever view of deep space -- and provide them with a dramatic window back through time to the formation of the universe itself.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), currently being built in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, will enable scientists to observe sub-millimeter radiation waves, giving them a far more detailed picture of the universe than has previously been possible with either optical or infrared telescopes.

The telescope, which is due to be completed by 2012, will consist of 66 radio antennae spread across the Llano de Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters above sea level.

When combined, the data collected from the dishes will provide a level of detail some 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The great thing about ALMA is that it will open up a genuinely new window on the universe," said Dr. John Richer, an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and ALMA project scientist.

"Over the past 20 or 30 years we've built [sub-millimeter] telescopes like the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope [in Hawaii] that have scraped the surface and shown us some of the really exciting objects emitting at these wavelengths. But ALMA is the first telescope that is going to look at these objects in great detail."

Located in one of the driest regions on earth at an altitude at which the atmosphere is 50 percent thinner than at sea level, ALMA is the highest construction project in the world and arguably the most challenging. Workers operate machinery from inside pressurized cabins or inhale from oxygen canisters to stave off the worst effects of altitude sickness.

But the sheer inhospitable nature of the site is also what makes it perfect for astronomy. The sub-millimeter radiation that the telescope will collect is usually absorbed by water, but the lack of moisture in the atmosphere will enable scientists to enjoy a clear view of the sky.

Currently just one prototype antenna has been built on the site, with building work on the rest due to commence in 2008. The $1 billion international project is being backed by the 11-nation European Southern Observatory as well as Chile, Spain, the U.S., Canada, Japan and Taiwan.

When fully operational, scientists predict the telescope will radically transform our view of the universe by allowing the study of previously undetectable objects, with new galaxies likely to be discovered at a rate of one every three minutes.

Richer said that up to half of the stars in the universe were obscured by space dust and would soon be visible for the first time, thanks to ALMA's ability to pick up sub-millimeter radiation waves that pass through the dust unchecked.

That makes the telescope ideally suited for studying the formation of stars and galaxies, previously shrouded from astronomical view by clouds of impenetrable cosmic debris, and compiling a detailed analysis of their chemistry.

By studying waves from galaxies that have taken millions of years to reach earth, the telescope could also shed new light on how the universe was shaped in the aftermath of the Big Bang by enabling astronomers to observe events just 300 million years into the estimated 13.7 billion-year life of the universe.

"Because ALMA can see through all the dust, we get a pristine, unobscured view of the early universe," said Richer.

"Equally, ALMA has the capability of looking right across to the edge of the universe which means going back in time to when the universe was very, very young. We will be able to look at things like new solar systems in formation and particularly the structure of so-called 'protoplanetary discs,' where we believe a star is growing in the middle and planets are forming around the outside."

With ALMA set to begin scientific work in the next few years, astronomers are already looking forward to further new telescopes opening up space to ever more detailed examination, Richer said.

The next stage is a new infrared space telescope -- the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) -- to replace Hubble, currently due to be launched in 2013. Beyond that, Richer predicted that successors to ALMA would also eventually be launched into space.

"ALMA is halfway into space but there are some things that genuinely you can't do from the ground and successors to ALMA in 30 years time may well be flying in space," said Richer.

"We hope the JWST will be flying and operating when ALMA is in its final operating form. You really have to study these objects at all the different wavelengths of light to understand them so when you combine the two the whole picture is tremendously exciting."

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