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New Telescope Discovers In Hours What Takes Older Telescopes Decades

Apr 18, 2013 01:28 PM EDT
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Over the course of a few hours, the new ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) telescope in Chile was able to do what similar telescopes have spent more of a decade trying to accomplish: pinpoint and observe over 100 of the early Universe's most fertile star-forming galaxies.

The trick is in ALMA's ability to observe light at longer wavelengths (approximately one millimeter) than other telescopes. In doing this, it is able to pierce through star dust and illuminate the galaxies themselves. Doing so allows scientists a clearer window into the life and evolution of a galaxy.

"Astronomers have waited for data like this for over a decade," Jacqueline Hodge of the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy said in a press release. "ALMA is so powerful that it has revolutionized the way that we can observe these galaxies, even though the telescope was not fully completed at the time of the observations."

In all, the discovery was made using less than a quarter of what will be a total of 66 antennas spread across 125 meters once it's completed.

Previously, the best map scientists had of the region represented areas of star formation as swaths of fuzzy blobs so broad that when analyzed at other wavelengths, scientists realized was more than one galaxy.

Without knowing which of the galaxies were birthing stars and which weren't, scientists made little advancement in the study of star formation in the early Universe.

ALMA, however, needed just two minutes per galaxy to locate each one within a region 200 times smaller than the broad APEX blurs, and with three times more sensitivity.

In fact, the telescope is so sensitive it was able to double the total number of such observations ever made in a matter of hours.

Currently, scientists are working to revise their working knowledge of the star-industry neighborhood.

"We previously thought the brightest of these galaxies were forming stars a thousand times more vigorously than our own galaxy, the Milky Way, putting them at risk of blowing themselves apart," Alexander Karim of Durham University and team member said. "The ALMA images revealed multiple, smaller galaxies forming stars at somewhat more reasonable rates."

Knowing this, scientists are now able to go forward with their research of the galaxies' properties at different wavelengths without the risk of misinterpretation due to blending.

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