The highest observatory in the world just opened in Chile

The University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) officially opened on Tuesday after 26 years of planning and construction. Sitting 18,500 feet high on Mount Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the 6.5-meter optical-infrared TAO telescope is now the highest in the world.

TAO replaces a smaller version of itself called MiniTAO, which held the highest telescope distinction before it. It beats the Chacaltaya Observatory, owned by the University of Madrid and sitting 17,191 feet on Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia.

Being so high up means far less moisture in the air; TAO can observe “almost the entire range of near-infrared wavelengths,” including mid-infrared. No other earthbound telescope can do that, notes. The University of Tokyo writes that such terrestrial observatories are capable of taking higher-resolution shots of space, thanks to their larger apertures, than their space-based counterparts. The telescope will be used to learn about “the birth of galaxies and the origin of planets” starting in 2025, according to the University of Tokyo’s announcement.

A diagram of the 6.5-meter diameter telescope.
Image: University of Tokyo

There’s a thought it could also improve on observations from the nearby ALMA telescope by viewing the same objects in different wavelengths to give researchers new insights.

TAO’s primary mirror.
Image: University of Tokyo

The benefits of TAO sitting at such an extreme altitude come at a cost, however, as humans are pretty ill-suited for life that high up. Yuzuru Yoshii, the principal investigator who started the project in 1998, said that builders working on the telescope needed medical checkups and had to regularly inhale oxygen while they worked.

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