Chile desert to host world's biggest telescope

26th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chile won the right Monday to host the largest telescope ever built, dubbed "the world's biggest eye on the sky" by the European astronomical consortium behind the project.

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 European Southern Observatory (ESO), the intergovernmental astronomical research agency which already has three star-gazing facilities in Chile's northern Atacama desert, announced the choice of site as a key milestone.

Advocates argue that the desert's Armazones mountain, altitude 3,060 metres, were the perfect place for the 1.3 billion dollars (970 million euros) project because of skies that are cloud-free 320 nights a year.

The ESO hopes the new telescope could be as revolutionary in the field of astronomy as Galileo's telescope 400 years ago that determined that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round.

"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 in a statement.

The huge telescope is to be fitted with a mirror 42 metres (138 feet) in diameter -- nearly as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, to allow optical and near-infrared peering into the heavens.

The ESO's three facilities in the Atacama desert include the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the town of Paranal which is currently considered the foremost European-operated observatory.

According to the agency, the VLT last year captured the oldest, most distant recorded object in the universe, the aftermath of a cosmic explosion dating back 13 billion years.

But the ELT, on which work is to begin in December 2011, is intended to dwarf the VLT.

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."

Chile said being chosen to host the star-gazing facility was an "extremely important" step towards promoting astronomical research in Chile.

"This is a recognition of the quality of our territory and the government policies of Chile, under different administrations, which have attracted this type of investment to our country," Foreign Minister Fernando Schmidt said.

The Chilean desert 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.

© 2010 AFP

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