World's largest space observatory opens in Chile

The world's largest ground-based observatory opened for business Wednesday in the desert of northern Chile, wielding unprecedented power to peer into the remotest regions of the universe.

The ALMA space observatory was inaugurated here on an arid plateau some 5,000 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level, at a ceremony attended by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and other dignitaries.

"ALMA is a huge telescope 16 kilometers (10 miles) in diameter," said the facility's director Mattheus de Graauw, as the huge observatory was declared officially opened.

Gianni Marconi, an astronomer at the massive ground array of telescopes, recently proudly proclaimed to AFP that ALMA is "the largest observatory that has ever been built."

ALMA -- short for the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array, an acronym which means "soul" in Spanish -- is a joint effort among North American, European and Asian agencies.

The observatory is located near Pedro de Atacama, a desert town popular with tourists.

Located at an altitude of some 5,000 meters (15,000 feet) and with almost no humidity or vegetation to block its view of the heavens, ALMA is outfitted with 66 antennas ranging in diameter from seven meters (23 feet) to 12 meters (39 feet.)

"What is so very special about this place is that right here above our heads, there is virtually no water vapor. There is just so little that whatever light is emitted from a heavenly body, galaxy or star, it gets here with no interference" Marconi said.

When scientists who homed in on this site for ALMA said they were looking for a place that had a high altitude, low humidity, sunny weather and fairly easy logistical access.

De Graaw told AFP recently that ALMA's ultra-precise equipment would be used to seek answers to broad range of big questions -- star formation, the birth of planets and how the system was created after the Big Bang, among many others.

"It is a revolution in the history of the universe in the realm of millimetric and sub-millimetric waves, which can look through clouds of dust and focus on the formation of stars themselves," he told AFP.

"Telescopes cannot see what is happening inside these clouds. With ALMA, we can. And that is like opening a new window."