Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mega-Telescope Rises in Chile

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mega-Telescope Rises in Chile

Article excerpt

EIGHT European countries are cooperating in the construction of the world's largest telescope, which they say will have "a profound impact" on the science of cosmology - the study of the structure and evolution of the universe.

The instrument, known simply as the VLT - Very Large Telescope - "will allow observation of the faintest and remotest parts of the known universe," according to Daniel Hofstadt, technical manager at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at La Silla in Chile's arid north.

The VLT, scheduled to be in partial operation by 1996 and complete by 2000, will be built on what scientists think is the driest spot on earth, a 2,664-meter (8,700-foot) peak at Cerro Paranal in Chile's Atacama Desert.

Lack of moisture and the absence of interfering light sources convinced researchers that Cerro Paranal is a better location than La Silla itself, where ESO already operates 14 telescopes.

Although ESO scientists insist that they maintain a "friendly" rivalry with US astronomers (who operate another observatory nearby), the European governments putting up the 382 million deutsche marks (about $187 million) for the project may have a more competitive view.

European scientists will be "second to none" in space exploration with the completion of this "astronomer's dream," reads an ESO news release. Another says the VLT's images will be almost as sharp "as if it were in space," as is the US-built orbiting Hubble telescope.

Hofstadt says the Hubble has advantages because it is outside the earth's ultraviolet-ray barrier and other distorting influences. But the size of the VLT will give it distinct capabilities. It will look for planets around nearby stars, study stars born in interstellar clouds, and probe the innermost regions of the active galaxies.

Experts say the new technology will undoubtedly lead to "wholly unexpected discoveries."

Such surprises are already fairly common, as a recent visit to La Silla revealed. A German team visiting to update 10-year-old data on a particular star found it losing mass and heating up, contrary to expectations.

"That's not supposed to happen, according to the theories," said astronomer Klaus Teschner, on the ride down the mountain. …

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