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The World's Tallest Long-Awaited Observatory Opens in Chile

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Photo: The World's Tallest Long-Awaited Observatory Opens in Chile. Source: The University of Tokyo
Photo: The World's Tallest Long-Awaited Observatory Opens in Chile. Source: The University of Tokyo

After 26 years of planning and construction, the Tokyo University's Atacama Observatory (TAO) has officially opened in Chile. Situated at an altitude of 5638 meters on Mount Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert, this observatory boasts the world's highest telescope, as reported by The Verge.

The 6.5-meter optical-infrared telescope TAO can observe the entire range of infrared waves, making it the premier instrument for this range compared to other ground-based telescopes. The TAO telescope has replaced its predecessor and also its own reduced version called MiniTAO, which also held the record for the highest elevation among telescopes.

Scientists note that at such altitudes, there is significantly less moisture in the air, allowing TAO to observe "almost the entire range of wavelengths of the near-infrared spectrum including the mid-infrared range." Additionally, ground-based observatories can capture space images with higher resolution due to larger apertures compared to their space counterparts. Thus, the Tokyo University's Atacama Observatory will gather unique scientific data for studying the birth of galaxies and the origin of planets.

The new observatory can also enhance observations from the neighbouring ALMA telescope, examining the same objects in different wavelengths, providing researchers with a better understanding of data obtained from both telescopes.

It's worth noting that due to clear skies and tax incentives, many major observatories are located in Chile's Atacama Desert. These include James Clerk Maxwell Observatory at an altitude of 5212 meters, Atacama Cosmology Telescope at 5190 meters, and Llano de Chajnantor Observatory at approximately 5090 meters.

However, working at such altitudes poses challenges, as humans are poorly adapted to life in rarefied atmospheres. For instance, builders working on the TAO telescope required medical check-ups and had to regularly inhale oxygen from tanks during work.

Even researchers working inside will need to take precautions to stay healthy and avoid altitude sickness. It is reported that the team plans to eventually transition to remote telescope control from a lower base to mitigate health issues.

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