February 13, 2010

Chile May Host World’s Biggest Telescope

An International group of four professional stargazers are backing Chile's Atacama Desert as the future home to the world's biggest telescope.

The telescope is on schedule to be built in 2018, and astronomers say Chile provides the perfect conditions due to its geographical advantages.

The experts say that because of its cloud-free skies 360 nights a year, the high-altitude Armazones mountains in northern Chilean desert is the perfect place for the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

Each of the four astronomers were in the desert this week to evaluate its suitability compared to the main other contender, the Spanish isle of La Palma in the Canary Islands off western Africa.

"We are talking about the biggest telescope in the world, the biggest for a long time to come. That means we have to choose the best spot. Chile has a superb location. It's the best in the world, there's no doubt," the Italian, Massimo Tarenghi, told AFP.

Tarenghi represents an intergovernmental astronomical research agency known as the European Southern Observatory.  The agency already has three facilities operating in the Atacama desert, including the Very Large Telescope array in the town of Paranal, which is considered Europe's foremost observatory.

The ELT is intended to dwarf the VLT.

The project plans to build a telescope with a mirror 138 feet in diameter, which is nearly as big as an Olympic-sized pool.  It will allow optical and near-infrared peering into space.

Construction of the ELT is supposed to begin in December 2011 and will cost $120 million.

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

The European agency believes the ELT could be as revolutionary as Galileo's telescope 400 years ago, which determined that the Sun was the center of our solar system.

Wolfgang Gieren, a German astronomer, talked positive about the possibilities of the future of the ELT.

"In no more than 15 years we could have the first good-resolution spectra of planets outside our universe that are the same size of Earth and see if we can detect signs of life," he told AFP.

Mario Harmuy, a Chilean astronomer, said the Armazones provide an ideal location partly because of the altitude being 11,482 feet.

"Several things come together here. The cold Humboldt Current, which passes by Chile's coast, means that there is a high pressure center in the Pacific that deviates high clouds and prevents cover over this part of the continent," he told AFP.

"To the east, the high Andes mountains prevent humidity from moving in from the Atlantic with clouds. The higher you are, the less humidity there is, and thus the light from the stars go through less atmosphere and is distorted less when it hits the telescope."

He said the Chilean location is free of the storms that hit the Canary Islands and the Sahara.

He also added that the ESO's existing Paranal observatory close-by also meant that much of the ground infrastructure was already in place.

Chile's government was very enthusiastic about hosting the Extremely Large Telescope.

Gabriel Rodriguez, who heads the foreign ministry's science and technology division, said Chile was ready to give up the 1,500 acres needed for the project.

The offer will be submitted to ESO by the government next Monday, and the decision will be made early March.

One of the Italian astronomers cautioned that although Chile had many obvious advantages, the tender had to be weighed carefully for all its aspects.

"Neither us nor the ESO know what the final decision will be. We need to receive the Chilean and Spanish proposals and evaluate factors of operation, work and production costs," Tarenghi said.

Maria Teresa Ruiz, another Chilean astronomer, said the "surface area of this telescope is bigger than all the others in Chile combine, which will allow us to explore things in the universe that we cannot even image today."


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