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TextLLANO DE CHAJNANTOR, Chile — Trucks stall on the road to this plateau 16,597 feet up in the Atacama Desert, where scientists are installing one of the world’s largest ground-based astronomical projects. Heads ache. Noses bleed. Dizziness overcomes the researchers toiling in the shadow of the Licancabur volcano.
Opened last October, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA, will have spread 66 radio antennas near the spine of the Andes by the time it is completed next year. Drawing more than $1 billion in funding mainly from the United States, European countries and Japan, ALMA will help the oxygen-deprived scientists flocking to this region to study the origins of the universe.With ALMA, astronomers hope to see where the first galaxies were formed, and perhaps even detect solar systems with the conditions to support life, like water-bearing planets. But the scientists here express caution about their chances of finding life elsewhere in the universe, explaining that such definitive proof is likely to remain elusive.