Who Needs Another Mountaintop When We Can Have a Giant Telescope?

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Chilean technicians exploded the top off of Las Campanas Peak in the Atacama Desert to begin the construction of a telescope ten times as powerful as the Hubble on Friday morning. The event was so apparently so celebratory, they even put some red, white and blue coloring in the explosives so they'd look like fireworks and broadcast the whole thing on the Internet. Unfortunately, bad wiring meant that the dynamite blew up a minute and a half too soon, and so the Internet watchers did not get to enjoy the oh-so-symbolic countdown. It really did look quite awesome, though.

When you look at the facts about the new telescope's potential, "awesome" seems too small a word. It's called the Giant Magellan, after all. The $700 million research tool, collectively developed by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Harvard and others, will use adaptive optics in order to help scientists peer more clearly into deep space than ever before.  With 300 days of sunshine a year and practically no light pollution -- not many people live in the oppressively dry, terribly hot and horribly cold Atacama Desert -- the location is one of the best on Earth for a giant telescope. What's different about this telescope is the resolution. Whereas the Hubble is pretty good at being a telescope, it's a nightmare to fix. And thanks both to its location on the ground and a unique seven-mirror setup pictured to the right, the Giant Magellan is capable of capturing images of deep space like we've never seen, while not requiring a rocket launch every time there's a screw loose.

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This is not the first mountaintop at Las Campanas that's been razed, and it's probably not the last. For the next six years, however, all attention is on Magellan. If completed on time, it stands the chance of beating its bigger, less creatively named and much more expensive European competitor, the European Extremely Large Telescope. Construction on that monstrosity is expected to begin later this year on the nearby Armazones Peak. Seriously, Europe: "Extremely Large?" That name sounds like a special edition Mountain Dew flavor or a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or something -- not a $1.4 billion science project. 


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.