The Northern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA), a powerful radio telescope in the French Alps, has reached full capacity. On September 30, the telescope, which includes 12 antennas, was inaugurated and has become the most powerful millimeter radio telescope in the northern hemisphere.
The telescope will make unprecedented observations of the cosmos, as it is able to capture light that has traveled to Earth for 13 billion years, when the universe was about 600 million years old.
NOEMA will also study stars at all stages of their lives and continue to help Event Horizon Telescope studying black holes. This means it will play a key role in helping astronomers answer some of the fundamental questions about the universe.
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The first antenna of the NOEMA system was inaugurated in 2014, and the telescope now includes 12 antennas. Additionally, the length of runways over which the 12 antennas can travel has been reduced from 2,500 feet (760 meters) to just over a mile (1.7 kilometers), according to a statement from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
This allows antenna configurations to be adjusted so that astronomers can zoom in on cosmic objects and study them in more detail. With various configurations allowing NOEMA to function as a camera with a zoom lens, the maximum spatial resolution achievable by the telescope would allow it to detect a cellphone over 500 km away, CNRS researchers said in the release.
NOEMA’s impressive resolving power also comes from its antenna technology. All antennas, which point to the same area of space, are fitted with high-sensitivity receivers that operate at quantum limits and use a technique called interferometry. The signals received by the antennas are combined by a supercomputer, which allows the 12 antennas spread over a wide area to function as a single massive telescope whose diameter covers the entire area.
Millimeter radio telescopes such as NOEMA study light with wavelengths in the millimeter range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Cosmic objects like galaxies, nebulae and stars emit different types of light depending on factors such as their composition, temperature and age. This means that to build a more complete picture of an object, astronomers must combine observations and data collected at different wavelengths.
The newly powered NOEMA telescope is one of the few radio observatories around the world that can collect data on a large number of molecular and atomic signatures – the “fingerprints” of molecules and atoms – at the same time as astronomers call it “multiline observations.”
This means that the instrument is well equipped to study matter that lies in the regions between stars. This so-called interstellar medium usually consists of hydrogen and helium gas, with small amounts of heavier elements, and is the material from which stars and planets are formed.
Astronomers will also use NOEMA to study cold matter that exists a few degrees above absolute zero – the hypothetical temperature at which all atomic movement ceases – and the compositions of entire galaxies.
Even before reaching full capacity, NOEMA was making waves in astronomy. Recently, the radio telescope observed one of the most distant galaxies ever seen, which formed shortly after the big Bang. NOEMA also discovered the first example of a rapidly growing black hole at the dusty core of a so-called galaxy of starsin which star formation occurs rapidly.
Additionally, NOEMA measured the early temperature of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the first light that filled the universe after it cooled enough to allow electrons and protons to connect and photons to travel freely. This measure could help better limit the effects of dark energy, the mysterious force that causes acceleration expansion of the universe we see today.
NOEMA, which is the culmination of 40 years of scientific collaboration in Europe, was inaugurated on September 30 in a ceremony attended by eminent astronomers, including Reinhard Genzel, one of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.
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