Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Big Southern Eye in Search of Extraterrestrial Life

SANTIAGO, May 3 2010 (IPS) - Chilean scientists are touting the benefits of the European Southern Observatory's choice of this country for a site to scan the far reaches of the universe.

Computer model of the E-ELT telescope. - Courtesy of the European Southern Observatory

Computer model of the E-ELT telescope. - Courtesy of the European Southern Observatory

The construction of the world's largest telescope in the northern region of Antofagasta could make Chile an international leader in astronomy research and provide a launch pad for developing other scientific disciplines.

Cerro Amazons, a mountain rising 3,060 meters above sea level in the middle of the Atacama Desert, was chosen for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) for its newest efforts to find planets outside the Solar System that may sustain life.

The Ego's new 1.5-billion-dollar jewel, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), is able to detect atmospheres. The optical-infrared telescope will have a primary mirror 42 meters in diameter.

“From now to the end of the decade, Chile is going to hold the greatest number of observation instruments and is going to become a major global astronomy center,” predicted Mario Hamuy, director of the astronomy department at the University of Chile, in a Tierramérica interview.

The work of Hamuy and other Chilean and foreign astronomers in the specialization of supernova stars contributed to the discovery of the universe's accelerating expansion.

“Dark energy” is thought to be responsible for this phenomenon. This hypothetical form of energy is believed to constitute 70 percent of the universe's mass-energy. The E-ELT could play a crucial role in determining the origin of this mysterious energy, said the Chilean scientist.

In an Apr. 26 statement, ESO spokespersons indicated that Chile had several factors in its favor, winning out over the Spanish island of La Palma. Primarily it was the location's skies, with more than 320 cloudless nights per year and the lack of light pollution.

But also taken into consideration were the construction and operating costs, and the “synergies” with the other ESO sites in northern Chile: the Paranal and La Silla observatories and the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array), which the 14-nation European entity will complete in 2012 in collaboration with other institutions.

In addition to Cerro Armazones, located 1,200 kilometers north of Santiago, the Chilean government had proposed three other sites for the “world's biggest eye on the sky” that will begin operating in 2018.

Chile is also home to the Cerro Tololo observatory, operated by a consortium of private U.S. universities, Las Campanas observatory, of the also private Carnegie Institution for Science, based in Washington DC.

“The national astronomy society has developed a great deal in the last 15 years, especially because we have access to 10 percent of the observation time of all the foreign telescopes in the country,” the president of the Chilean Astronomy Society, Leopoldo Infante, told Tierramérica.

Chile, with a population of 17 million, in the last few decades went from just a couple dozen astronomers to around 100 today, who publish their research in the most prestigious scientific journals around the globe.

The government has the opportunity to transform the country, with just a “modest investment,” into “a leader in astronomy research,” said Hamuy. Chile needs to focus resources on the “design and construction of instruments” for its own observation activities, he said.

“What is missing is the phase of technology transfer, for which we need more state incentives,” agreed Infante, also director of the Astro-Engineering Center at the Catholic University, and part of the discovery of the most distant galaxy from Earth.

The government seems to have gotten the message: the interim president of the National Commission on Scientific and Technological Research, María Elena Boisier, said a funding plan is in the works for developing astronomy instruments as well as engineering and information technologies related to the E-ELT.

Juan Asenjo, president of the Chilean Academy of Sciences, believes the achievements in the field of astronomy “should be extrapolated to other scientific disciplines as well,” such as geophysics, experimental physics and geology.

“Chilean society, politicians and entrepreneurs have no idea that first-rate science is taking place in Chile, and there is no concept that scientific developments lead to a higher quality of life,” said Asenjo, 2004 winner of the National Applied Sciences Prize.

This perception, in his opinion, stands in the way of channeling more resources in that direction.

Asenjo noted the work of Chilean seismologists, who in the 1990s predicted the occurrence of a devastating quake in the central and southern regions of the country, just like the Feb. 27 temblor. Their work did not have the dissemination or impact they deserved.

The new Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, of the right-wing Coalition for Change, promised to increase investment in research and development from the current 0.7 percent gross domestic production to 1.2 percent by the end of his term in 2014.

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