The Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) chose Chile as the place to build the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which, with a diameter of 42 meters, will be the largest ever built. This gigantic astronomical complex will be sited on the Cerro Armazones mountain, 130 kilometers south-east of the city of Antofagasta.
Thus, the Chilean project beat the Spanish offer, which proposed siting the E-ELT on Roque de los Muchachos, in La Palma, Canary Islands. Massimo Tarenghi, representative of the European Southern Observatory in Chile, explained that the decision had been made “on a scientific and technical basis, to situate the best telescope in the world in the best place in the world”.
Armazones is a 3,060-meter-high mountain in the central part of the Atacama Desert in Chile, located around 130 kilometers south-east of Antofagasta and some 20 kilometers away from Cerro Paranal, the home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope.
The selection criteria for the siting were the “astronomic quality” of the atmosphere, i.e., factors such as the number of clear nights, the amount of water vapor and the stability of the climate, in addition to other parameters such as construction and operating costs and the scientific and operational synergies with other major installations.
“The Council concluded that the main motivation for deciding upon the siting of the E-ELT should be the scientific quality of the location. The scientific quality of Cerro Armazones and the positive impact on the future scientific leadership of ESO that will occur by situating the E-ELT in Chile are sufficiently strong to counterbalance the very substantial offer made by Spain”, stated Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the European organization.
ESO’s next step will be to begin to build the telescope in the course of 2011. This will be an optical-infrared observatory with a primary mirror measuring 42 meters in diameter. The E-ELT, “the new great window of the Earth to observe the universe”, according to Tarenghi, will be the only telescope of its kind at a world level due to its gigantic dimensions, and will address many of the still-unresolved questions in astronomy, such as, very importantly, whether life exists on other planets.
The total investment necessary to put the E-ELT into action is estimated at close to 1.3 billion dollars, and will also require funding of 60 million dollars per year plus the cost of around 700 workers.
Ten percent of the observation time at the E-ELT will be granted to Chilean universities, thus giving students of astronomy in the country a tremendous advantage. The students will also have free access to all the data obtained at the astronomical complex.
Chile, the best window toward the sky
Thanks to the construction of the E-ELT, Chile will concentrate no less than 60% of world’s cosmic observation, and will consolidate the country’s position as the main astronomical pole on earth.
Other projects under construction are the Large Synoptic Study Telescope (LSST) that will be built in the Region of Coquimbo prior to 2017, which is considered to be “the largest photographic camera” in the world; the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is scheduled to be installed by 2018 in Atacama, and finally, the largest radio-astronomical project in the world, ALMA (also part of ESO) that is already being built in the Chajnantor plain in the Second Region, which will be operative in 2012 and is projected to observe the vestiges of the Big Bang radiations.
This scientific infrastructure is due to the good conditions the Chilean skies offer for observing the cosmos. The country currently owns more than a third of the existing area for capturing the light originating in stars, planets or galaxies on the far side of the universe, a term known in astronomy as photon collection.
In addition, according to astronomical studies published by local scientists and scientific magazines covering the field, Chile is among the 12 pioneering countries in the world in research of this type.
The director of Science, Technology, Energy and Innovation of the Chilean Chancery (DECYTI), Gabriel Rodríguez, spoke of the intention of adding Brazil as a partner in this gigantic project, which will position Chile as a pole of scientific development in Latin America. “This is a huge possibility for Latin American countries – for Brazil, which was interested in becoming a partner in this project if it was developed in Chile, and also for other countries such as Argentina and Mexico”, he indicated.
The official also stated that the construction of the largest telescope in the world gives Chile a special status. “This is a national project that positions Chile not only as the location with the best skies but also as a platform for astronomical services vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Chile is a country that is in a leading position, capable of developing this type of international alliances, offering the best conditions”.