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Peering into space, camera snaps colliding galaxies

This mind-blowing photo of a couple of galaxies colliding was the first image taken by a huge and powerful new telescope that recently began probing the universe from a high-altitude plateau in the Chilean Andes.

The ALMA observatory - an acronym for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array - uses radio technology to see wavelengths of light much longer than what's visible to the human eye, and much colder than what shows up in infrared telescopes. All that technology came at a cost - $1.3 billion, to be precise - but astronomers hope the new observatory will allow them to study molecular gas and tiny dust grains from which stars, planetary systems, and galaxies. In what's being billed as the largest astronomical project in existence, ALMA is an international partnership involving Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

ALMA observatory

By linking an array of radio antennas to act as a single giant telescope, ALMA has begun to reveal some of the darkest and coldest bodies in space. Astronomers say that the earliest dawn of the cosmos may soon be visible using this technology. So far, just the first 16 of a planned 66 antennas have been linked to a supercomputer and opened for business.

Because the array of linked antennas functions basically as a single giant telescope, ALMA astronomers say the observatory will be able to observe longer wavelengths than those of visible light. As a result, the images it sends back will appear unlike more familiar pictures of the cosmos.

"We are living in a historic moment for science and particularly for astronomy, and perhaps also for the evolution of humanity, because we start to use the greatest observatory under construction at the moment," said ALMA's director, Thijs de Graauw.

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