The Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub Millimeter Array (ALMA) is a group of 66 massive antennae standing in a Chilean desert, 16,500 feet above sea level, that collectively make up the world’s most powerful telescope. At $1.5 billion, it’s also one of the priciest. But money is only sometimes an object when it comes to peeking in on the furthest reaches of outer space, and on ALMA’s first official day of being online, that investment is already paying off.
Using the gravitation lensing technique — when faraway galaxies are magnified and distorted by other galaxies in the foreground — ALMA’s international team of astronomers got a detailed look at 26 starburst galaxies, which served as major breeders in the early stages of the universe. While the starburst group was first discovered by National Science Foundation astronomers using the South Pole Telescope, the ALMA research is far beyond, able to increase the galaxies’ luminosity by a factor of 10, and has thus doubled the previously known number of starburst galaxies that exist.
Not only do we now know that these galaxies could theoretically have pumped out 10,000 stars a year, but the research shows that the starburst galaxies are way further out than first thought. They’re a whopping 12 billion light years away, which puts their formative period around two billion years after the Big Bang, which means all this happened a full billion years before astronomers thought it did. Rarely do I mess with measurements that allow for the phrase, “Give or take one hundred thousand years.” One of the galaxies was actually found to be around just one billion years after the universe began. In its day, it had to send light 15 miles across the universe barefoot in the piled snow.
If all of that wasn’t enough, that same galaxy also proved to have water molecules, making it the earliest form of water ever observed. You could ask me how they found water molecules, and I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you, and I don’t want somebody in another galaxy with their own big honking telescope peering down on me while I do it.