Land deal marks big step towards mega telescope

What will become the world’s largest optical telescope came a step closer yesterday when Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera, handed over land in the Atacama Desert for its construction.

dignitaries at Paranal
Ceremony guests included ESO’s Tim de Zeeuw, third from left, and President Sebastián Piñera, third from right

The Chilean government is transferring 189 square kilometres of land around the Cerro Armazones peak and protect a further 362 sq km in the surrounding area from light pollution or development.

When completed, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a segmented mirror 39.3 metres wide that can collect 12 times more light than the current biggest telescopes.

It will lie 20km from the European Southern Observatory’s major site at Paranal which house the four giant 8.2-metre instruments of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) as well as other telescopes.

ESO also operates an observatory complex at La Silla, as well as the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), recognising the exceptional sky conditions that Chile offers for viewing the southern stars.

Mr Piñera and his entourage are pictured here with ESO bigwigs, including ESO Director General, Tim de Zeeuw, at the site of the VLT at Cerro Paranal. The handover ceremony happened at the futuristic residence which is like an oasis for astronomers and which served as a location in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

Impression of the E-ELT at the summit
Impression of the E-ELT above the clouds. Credit: ESO

This writer was lucky enough to visit Paranal and stay at the Residencia in 2011 and can attest to welcome comforts in the heart of the world’s driest desert.

I also enjoyed probably the hairiest ride of my life when one of the observatory’s expert drivers raced us by jeep across a Mars-like terrain that mixed dirt-tracks with plain rocky desert to reach the 3,060-metre high summit where the E-ELT will stand a decade from now.

During yesterday’s ceremony, President Piñera spoke of the importance of protecting the skies in the north of Chile. He said: “We are taking a great step to consolidate Chile as the world’s capital of astronomy.

“The Extremely Large Telescope on Cerro Armazones will be the largest eye in the world, an eye that will peer from Chilean skies and will plunge into those secrets that the Universe has not yet revealed. Today is a very important day for modern astronomy, and a very important day for Chile, as well.”

ESO’s Mr de Zeeuw said: “The cooperation between Chile and ESO that began 50 years ago has proved not only to be very fruitful and long-lasting, but also to provide exciting opportunities for the future — for the benefit of Chile, for the ESO Member States, and for the progress of science and technology. The E-ELT is clear proof of that.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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