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Chile won the right Monday to host the largest-ever telescope, the Munich-based European Southern Observatory (ESO) said, calling the planned facility "the world's biggest eye in the sky". The other main contender site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), due to begin operation in 2018, was the Spanish isle of La Palma in the Canary Islands off western Africa.
The ELT is intended to dwarf the VLT. Work on the new telescope is to begin in December 2011 and cost 120 million dollars (90 million euros). "This is an important milestone that allows us to finalise the baseline design of this very ambitious project, which will vastly advance astronomical knowledge," ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw said of the decision for Chile in a statement. The project calls for the construction of a huge telescope with a mirror 42 meters (138 feet) in diameter -- nearly as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It will permit optical and near-infrared peering into the heavens.
The observatory will be constructed on Cerro Armazones, a 3,000m-high mountain in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Astronomers say the next-generation observatory will be so powerful it will be able to image directly rocky planets beyond our Solar System.
It should also be able to provide major insights into the nature of black holes, galaxy formation, the mysterious "dark matter" that pervades the Universe, and the even more mysterious "dark energy" which appears to be pushing the cosmos apart at an accelerating rate.