Central to the race to see distant worlds is the Giant Magellanic Telescope (GMT), a 1.8 billion-dollar complex being built at the Las Campanas Observatory that will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The telescope, which is expected to be operational by the end of the decade, will compete with the extremely large European Southern Observatory telescope – located further north in the same desert – and the 30-meter telescope (TMT) being built in Hawaii.
“This new generation of giant telescopes is designed to accurately detect life on other planets and determine the origin of dark energy,” said Leopoldo Infante, director of the Las Campanas Observatory.
“These three groups compete to see who will be the first and who will be the first to discover.”
Infante said the new giant telescope will be able to detect organic molecules in the atmosphere of distant planets.
“It’s an expectation,” he said. “And whoever perceives life on another planet will receive the Nobel Prize, I assure you.”
The second prize is the study of dark energy – separate from similarly mysterious dark matter – which is considered a property of the universe and drives the accelerated expansion of the universe. It makes up a huge universe, but remains a largely unsolved mystery.
“There is an energy that is causing the universe to expand, but it is also accelerating that expansion,” Infante said, adding that scientists knew that energy must exist, even though they did not understand its origin.
“So this telescope is designed to be able to study carefully 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.”