Chilean stars in the Atacama Desert search for alien life and ‘dark energy’

Central to the race to look into the distant worlds is the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a $ 1.8 billion complex being built at the Las Campanas Observatory that will have a resolution 10 times higher than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope, which is expected to go into operation at the end of the decade, will compete with the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope – located further north in the same desert – as well as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which is being built in Hawaii.

“This new generation of giant telescopes is precisely aimed at discovering life on other planets and determining the origin of dark energy,” said Leopoldo Infante, director of the Las Campanas Observatory.

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“It’s a race between these three groups about who does it first and who makes the first discovery.”

Infante said the new giant telescope would be able to detect organic molecules in the atmosphere of distant planets.

“That’s the expectation,” he said. “And whoever discovers life on another planet will win the Nobel Prize, I assure you.”

The second prize is to study dark energy – separate from the corresponding enigmatic dark matter – which is considered to be a property of space and drives the accelerated expansion of the universe. It makes up a huge amount of the universe, but for the most part remains an unsolved mystery.

“There is an energy that causes the universe to expand, but also to accelerate that expansion,” Infante said, adding that scientists knew that this energy must exist even if they did not understand its origin.

“So this telescope is designed to study exactly what is called the dark energy of the universe, to be able to physically understand what that energy is and where that energy comes from.”


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