Brazil ignites telescope race

The proposed European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)

To astronomers, Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert practically screams for an observatory. Above it is the same dry, stable air that gives the Very Large Telescope (VLT), 20 kilometres away at Cerro Paranal (see map), one of the world’s best views of the heavens. But at 3,064 metres, more than 400 metres higher than Paranal, Armazones should make an even better perch for an extraordinary telescope.

The mountain may not have much longer to wait. On 29 December, Brazil announced its intention to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates the VLT among other sites in Chile. If ratified by Brazil’s parliament, the move will make it the consortium’s fifteenth, and first non-European, member. It also significantly improves the odds that the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), an optical behemoth that would be the world’s largest telescope and possibly the most important astronomical tool of the century, will be built on the summit of Armazones, with construction to begin as soon as next year.

“We have the site. We have the design. The addition of Brazil puts the whole funding scenario on a much sounder footing,” says Tim de Zeeuw, director-general of ESO, which is headquartered in Garching, Germany.


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