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ALMAs World At Night
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ALMA's World At Night

December 13, 2011
This panoramic view of the Chajnantor plateau, spanning about 180 degrees from north (on the left) to south (on the right) shows the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) ranged across the unearthly landscape. Some familiar celestial objects can be seen in the night sky behind them. These crystal-clear night skies explain why Chile is the home of not only ALMA, but also several other astronomical observatories.

In the foreground, the 12-meter diameter ALMA antennas are in action, working as one giant telescope, during the observatory’s first phase of scientific observations. On the far left, a cluster of smaller 7-meter antennas for ALMA’s compact array can be seen illuminated. The crescent Moon, although not visible in this image, casts stark shadows over all the antennas.

In the sky above the antennas, the most prominent bright “star” — on the left of the image — is in fact the planet Jupiter. The gas giant is the third brightest natural object in the night sky, after the Moon and Venus. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds can also be clearly seen on the right of the image. The Large Magellanic Cloud looks like a puff of smoke, just above the rightmost antenna. The Small Magellanic Cloud is higher in the sky, towards the upper-right corner. Both “clouds” are in fact dwarf irregular galaxies, orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, at distances of about 160 000 and 200 000 light-years respectively.

On the far left of the image, just left of the foreground antennas, is the elongated smudge of the Andromeda galaxy. This galaxy, more than ten times further away than the Magellanic Clouds, is our closest major neighboring galaxy. It is also the largest galaxy in the Local Group — the group of about 30 galaxies which includes our own — and contains approximately one trillion stars, more than twice as many as the Milky Way. It is the only major galaxy visible with the naked eye. Even though only its most central region is apparent in this image, the galaxy spans the equivalent of six full Moons in the sky.

This photograph was taken by Babak Tafreshi, the latest ESO Photo Ambassador. Babak is also founder of The World At Night, a program to create and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a nighttime backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events.

ALMA is being built on the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5000 meters. The observatory, which started Early Science operations on 30 September 2011, will eventually consist of 66 antennas operating together as a single giant telescope. This international astronomy facility is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)