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March 13, 2013

One of the most remarkable objects that’s visible to the unaided eye stands well up in the south-southeast as night falls: the Orion Nebula. It looks like a small, fuzzy patch of light below the three stars of Orion’s Belt. Yet it’s really a spectacular stellar nursery - a complex of thousands of newborn stars, plus the gas and dust for making many more.

The nebula is a prime target for a new telescope that’s being dedicated today in Chile. It’s called ALMA - the Atacama Large Millimeter-Submillimeter Array. When it’s completed, it’ll consist of 66 large radio dishes scattered across a three-mile-high plateau in the Andes Mountains. A supercomputer will combine the signals from the dishes to produce images and other observations of a variety of astronomical objects.

Many of those objects involve gas and dust, which glow brightly at ALMA’s wavelengths. The list of targets includes stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula, star systems where planets are taking shape, and the gas clouds around black holes. ALMA will also study the chemistry of interstellar space, putting together a list of the ingredients available to make new stars and planets.

Right now, only about half of ALMA’s antennas are hooked up, and astronomers are already using them to study the universe. But the view will get a lot better when the full array is online next year - providing clearer views of some dusty parts of the cosmos.

We’ll talk about another new telescope project tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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