Highest telescope reveals wonders of the Universe


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The Independent Online

A stunning image of a spiral shell of cosmic dust and gas around a red giant star was captured by astronomers using the world's highest terrestrial telescope.

The ALMA telescope is currently being completed on the remote Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes.

Located 5,100 metres above sea level, it has an array of 66 antennas each the size of a two-storey suburban house and can detect radiation in the millimetre-submillimetre wavelength range, between infrared and radio waves, which means that it can see structures that are invisible to the Hubble telescope.

Until this image was captured, astronomers had no idea that this red giant star, R Sculptoris, possessed a spiral-shaped halo of material, which indicates the presence of an unseen companion star.

"This is the first time we've ever seen a spiral of material coming out from a star, together with a surrounding shell," said Matthias Maercker, of the European Southern Observatory and University of Bonn in Germany.

Red giants evolve towards the end of a star's life and are major contributors to the dust and gas that form the raw materials of newly formed stars.

The ALMA telescope will be formally opened next year. Dr Maercker said it is already providing insights into some of the most mysterious regions of the Universe.

"We always expected ALMA to provide us with a new view of the Universe, but to be discovering unexpected new things already with one of the first sets of observations is truly exciting," he said.