Chile desert to host world's biggest telescope

26th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chile won the right Monday to host the largest-ever telescope, the Munich-based European Southern Observatory (ESO) said, calling the planned facility "the world's biggest eye in the sky".

The other main contender site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), due to begin operation in 2018, was the Spanish isle of La Palma in the Canary Islands off western Africa.

The ESO, an intergovernmental astronomical research agency, already has three facilities operating in the Atacama desert, including the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the town of Paranal which is currently considered the foremost European-operated observatory.

The ELT is intended to dwarf the VLT. Work on the new telescope is to begin in December 2011 and cost 120 million dollars (90 million euros).

"This is an important milestone that allows us to finalise the baseline design of this very ambitious project, which will vastly advance astronomical knowledge," ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw said of the decision for Chile in a statement.

The project calls for the construction of a huge telescope with a mirror 42 meters (138 feet) in diameter -- nearly as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It will permit optical and near-infrared peering into the heavens.

The ELT could be as revolutionary in the field of astronomy as Galileo's telescope 400 years ago that determined that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the center of our universe, according to the ESO.

Advocates argued that the Armazones mountain, altitude 3060 metres, in the northern Chilean desert was the perfect place because of skies that are cloud-free 320 nights a year.

The region has extremely low humidity and is also free of the storms that lash the Canary Islands. In addition, the ESO's Paranal observatory meant that much of the ground infrastructure was already in place.

Chile's government actively lobbied to host the ELT, agreeing to donate a substantial tract of land "to ensure the continued protection of the site against all adverse influences, in particular light pollution and mining activities," the ESO said.

When complete, the device will be "the world's biggest eye on the sky," according to the ESO, which hopes it will "address many of the most pressing unsolved questions in astronomy."

© 2010 AFP

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