‘Holy grail’ of astrophysics: scientists propose world’s biggest telescope

Chilean astronomers are proposing to search for alien life and evidence of dark energy in what could be the “holy grail” of astrophysics.

The Las Campanas Observatory in the desert north of Santiago, is one of the world’s leading telescopes, and now scientists plan to target it with the construction of the Zephyr, the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere.

The Zephyr is a 7.5km telescope, set to be built at the Atacama Desert Research Station, near Copiapo. The observatory and project are being funded by the Chilean government.

The astronomy facility is currently open to the public and will remain so until the end of December, and a public consultation on the future direction of the Zephyr project will continue through the end of January. The experiment will then begin.

Speaking at the launch in 2016, astronomer Ryan Chittum, director of the Las Campanas Observatory, said it would be “in the hands of the general public, essentially.”

“It’s going to be a new way of exploring the universe. It’s the Holy Grail of astronomy.”

Chittum added that looking for habitable planets outside our solar system would be a part of the Zephyr project.

The project is the brainchild of astronomer Valerio Ampuero, leader of the Max Planck Society’s Astrobiology lab in Germany, who has brought together more than 30 of the world’s leading astronomers, former scientists and representatives from companies including NASA, Microsoft and Google.

The machine is set to be built with more than 100 instruments and will be capable of looking for outer space objects which may contain signs of dark energy – which has been said to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, meaning the universe is getting older and colder at a rate which seems close to the speed of light.

The project will help to answer the question of whether dark energy exists.

Even though previous tests of dark energy are needed to arrive at a definitive result, scientists say that if it does exist then astronomers have already solved a big question.

“Does the expansion of the universe accelerate, or not? That is a key question,” Ampuero said.

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