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Park for astronomical observation ensures Chile’s prominence in the field

Thursday, July 15th 2010 - 06:12 UTC
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Chajnantor plain, “the best place on the planet for stargazing” Chajnantor plain, “the best place on the planet for stargazing”

Widely considered a Mecca for astronomy, Chile has further assured its world prominence in the field of astronomy with a new law that will set aside land specifically for astronomical observation for the next 50 years.

The Antofagasta regional government responded to requests from the National Commission for Scientific Investigation and Technology (CONICYT) by setting aside 36,347 hectares of land in the Chajnantor plain for scientific use until 2060. The original land concession was due to expire in October.

The large scale of investment in astronomical technology makes it essential to support scientific operations in this area by preventing dust and light pollution and other types of disturbances: mineral or water exploration, geothermal projects and radio static.

The Astronomical Park, as the reserved area will be called, surrounds the site of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) project, one of the largest astronomy projects in the world, which has brought together hundreds of scientists from Europe, North America, East Asia and Chile.

The ALMA telescope, a US$600 million project, is currently under construction and is expected to be the largest in the world when completed. (The E-ELT, a billion-dollar telescope will eventually overtake it and has already been approved for the region.) Other large radio-telescopes already in use include the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) and Cosmic Background Imager (CBI).

For stargazing, the Chajnantor plain “is the best place on the planet,” said Professor Yuzuru Yoshii, of the University of Tokyo. He has spent 10 years working at the Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) project, the highest telescope in the world, atop the Chajnantor hill (5,640 meters above sea level). “Up here you get a lot of infrared light, and you get images as good as if they were taken from space, but without such a high cost,” he said.

Last week, Wataru Hayashi, Japan’s ambassador to Chile, and CONICYT President José Miguel Aguilera joined Japanese authorities in celebrating the first image captured by the telescope TAO.

Aguilera applauded the multinational collaboration, Chilean contributions and the technological and tourist opportunities that have opened up for the country.

“Today, Chile possesses 35 percent of the world’s observatories,” said Mónica Rubio, an Astronomer with CONICYT. “With the new initiatives, we will reach 70 percent.
Our Ph.Ds ought to be the best in the world,”

CONIYCT will promote the installation of new astronomical centres in the Chajnantor plain, along with plans to promote the project worldwide. Leonardo Bronfman, a consultant in astronomical materials at CONICYT, added that there were already similar projects in development through the University of Tokyo and Cornell University.

The Chajnantor plain possesses a unique set of conditions that facilitate astronomical observation. Exceptionally clear skies, a high location of 5,000 meters above sea level, infrastructure for international communication and relative isolation from urban centres makes it a perfect site for unravelling the mysteries of space.

By Adrienne Lee – Santiago Times

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