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Chile's giant space lab aims for heights with final antenna

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The arrival of the 66th and final giant antenna at the world's largest land-based space observatory in the Chilean desert will allow the endeavor to better probe the mysteries of the universe, the project's director said on Tuesday.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array's (ALMA) antennae are situated high on the Chajnantor Plateau, a remote area of the Atacama desert in northern Chile at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level. There, the dryness and altitude create some of the best conditions for observing the night sky.

With all the antennae working in unison as a giant telescope, the observatory will provide astronomers with a window into the "cold universe" where cosmic secrets wait to be discovered, said project director Pierre Cox. He added that ALMA is poised to reach its full potential next year.

"Up to now ALMA's observations and data were published with 16 to 20 antennae, now we're going to have double that or more, hence there will be a jump in sensitivity: better, quicker and more data," Cox said. "I think there will be a real stream of scientific results in the coming months and years."

The new 12-meter (13-yard) diameter dish is the 25th European antenna to be transported up to the observatory. It will work alongside 25 other antennae from North America and four from East Asia, as well as 12 smaller 7-meter (7.7-yard) dishes from East Asia.

The $1.1 billion telescope, which began full-scale operation in March, has already spotted galaxies expelling gas and a star formation near the center of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole. It also has captured the first image of an icy ring around a distant star.

ALMA is funded by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Japan.

(Reporting by Antonio de la Jara; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Gunna Dickson)

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