ALMA stands for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array,and it is the largest ground-based astronomy project. It’s the mostexpensive one too, with construction costs going up to $1.3billion. ALMA’s been devised and built by the joint efforts ofscientists from European, East Asian and North American countriesfor more than a decade.It consists of 66 huge antennas and a supercomputer installed ina 10-mile (16 km) diameter area on a high-altitude plateau inChile. A lower-ground operating support facility is connected tothe complex by some 15 km of cables.Upon completion, the cutting edge telescope will become the mostpowerful in the world, with resolution ten times higher thanthe Very Large Array (VLA) and five times finer than the HubbleSpace Telescope.Scientists compared the array’s working principle to how weperceive sound by two ears. Each of ALMA’s antennas, ranging from 7to 12 meters in diameter, gathers radio waves from space, and theircombined result is processed through the supercomputer.Height is one of the key factors of ALMA’s incredible power, aswater vapor absorbs radio waves nearer to sea level and obscuresobservations. This is the reason the $1.3 billion complex had to bemounted at an altitude of 5,000 meters amidst the arid Chileandesert, with construction workers having to use supplementaloxygen, and the science team having to operate in the 2,900 metershigh support facility.But for astronomers these are negligible costs when compared tothe perspectives, which the ALMA project is said to be opening.“The scientific community wants to use ALMA in its researchon star formation, the birth of planets and not just what ishappening in our solar system, but also on how the system wascreated after the Big Bang,” ALMA director Thijs de Graawsaid.According to Big Bang theory, the origin of our universeoccurred about 13.77 billion years ago.“It is a revolution in the history of the universe in therealm of millimetric and sub-millimetric waves, which can lookthrough clouds of dust and focus on the formation of starsthemselves. Telescopes cannot see what is happening inside theseclouds. With ALMA, we can. And that is like opening a newwindow,” he added.“It will have a view of the universe that we can’t evenimagine even now,” Wolfgang Wild, ESO’s European ALMA projectmanager also told SPACE.com.Not only will ALMA bring about a new picture of the universe’sformation, it could also make a breakthrough in the study of alienworlds.Astronomers would be able to detect the effects of young planetsthe size of Earth, SPACE.com quoted James Ulvestad, director of theUS National Science Foundation’s astronomical sciencesdivision.“ALMA already has seen dust rings around stars that are verynarrow, and by modeling… you can infer the dust ring has planetsinside and outside the ring. Even though you can’t see the planet,you can see the effects of the planet. That would be thepredominant way that ALMA will study extra-solar planets,”Ulvestad explained.