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Not as strange as it sounds: World's largest telescope is actually a time machine

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Although it's called a telescope array, a vast network of radio dishes in the Atacama desert of Chile, is perhaps more of a time machine than anything else. The array is being switched on today and will become the world's most powerful telescope, ten times better than the Hubble.

ATACAMA, CHILE (Catholic Online) - In the high, thin desert air, workers on the array need oxygen tanks to survive. At 16,400 feet, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is the highest telescope in the world, situated above many of the clouds that would otherwise obscure viewing.

The telescope however, if not of the traditional variety, it isn't an optical instrument with lenses and mirrors. Instead, this telescope, or more properly, array, is a collection of satellite dishes that work in concert to produce ultra-sharp images of distant objects.

Radio telescopes are extremely sensitive and can detect even minute variations in radiation from space.
They can detect radio waves, which are not obscured by clouds of interstellar dust which gives them a tremendous advantage over optical scopes. They can literally see through interstellar clouds.

More importantly, they can see through time itself.

To understand this, consider the sun. Light travels at a finite speed, about 186,000 miles per second. At that speed, it takes light from the sun 8 minutes to reach Earth. Therefore, the sun is eight light minutes away from Earth. Radio telescopes can see much farther than our eyes. In fact, an ultra-sensitive array such as the ALMA an see close to the edge of the observable universe more than 13 billion light years distant.

At that distance, it takes light 13 billion years for light from there to reach our Earth, so when we view these very distant regions of space, we see them as they were 13 billion years ago. In that sense, astronomers are able to travel in time to see what the universe was like just after the moment of creation.

There is a point beyond which we cannot observe, so there will never be a direct observation of the big bang itself, nor of the moments immediately following it. However, scientists can see primordial stars igniting with nuclear fusion and galaxies in the earliest stages of formation. In fact, the oldest object currently observed is a galaxy forming about 600 million years following the big bang.

The new telescope will hopefully see even farther in time and reveal yet older objects. What it finds will either confirm, or challenge accepted notions of how the universe was formed.

In addition to peering to the very edge of space and time, the array will also be used to study nearby solar systems, to detect planets and possibly signs of life in the cosmos.

The telescope becomes operational today and will be made larger over the months to come until construction is complete.

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