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Giant telescope project starts with a bang on the Web

Scientists detonated a "Big Bang" explosion on a Chile mountaintop to start construction on a major new telescope, while Internet users around the world watched.
Image: Big Bang
Debris and colored smoke rise up from the "Big Bang" construction site for the Giant Magellan Telescope on Las Campanas Peak in Chile on Friday. Red, white and blue coloring agents were added to the explosives to reflect the colors on the flags of the nations involved in the project.GMTO via Ustream
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The birth of a giant new telescope began with a literal big bang on Friday: an excavation blast at the peak of a mountain in Chile, the observatory's future home.

The explosion detonated just before noon ET in order to level the mountaintop for the future Giant Magellan Telescope, an 82-foot (24.5-meter) observatory designed to scan the cosmos in unprecedented detail.  The blast was broadcast live on the Internet via the U.S. Embassy in Chile, and occurred a couple of minutes earlier than planned.

"Well that's what we call a short fuse," one project official said with a laugh just after the explosion, which was timed for high noon and infused with celebratory colors. "It was in three colors. It had red, white and blue, which happen to be the colors of the countries involved in this: Chile, the U.S, Australia and Korea," the official said.

The early explosion left no time to mark the detonation with an anticipatory countdown, as previously planned.

The live webcast of the explosion — which project officials dubbed the "Big Bang Event" — drew an unexpectedly large crowd on the Web. Event organizers had to move the broadcast to a Ustream feed in order to handle the demand. Ustream's statistics indicated that the video stream was viewed more than 3,000 times.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is a $700 million project to build a ground-based telescope with 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope currently orbiting Earth. In all, 10 different universities and organizations are participating in the Giant Magellan Telescope project — named after the famed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the world in 1522. [Gallery: Giant Magellan Telescope Envisioned]

The telescope is being built 8,500 feet (2,550 meters) above sea level, atop Las Campanas Peak in Chile's Atacama Desert, a region known for its dependably clear and dark night sky. Construction is expected to be completed by 2018.

"Today marks a historic step toward constructing an astronomical telescope larger than any in existence today," Wendy Freedman, chair of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and director of the Carnegie Observatories, said in a statement. "Years of testing have shown that Las Campanas is one of the premier observatory sites in the world, and the Carnegie Institution is proud to host the GMT."

More than 70 controlled blasts will be conducted over the next few months to excavate the 3 million cubic feet of rock from Las Campanas Peak to make way for the telescope, officials said. The instrument is being built at the Las Campanas Observatory, which is managed by the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The telescope consists of an adaptive optics system of six circular mirrors surrounding a seventh central mirror. Each mirror segment is 28 feet (8.4 meters) across and weighs 20 tons, Carnegie officials said. They are designed to be adjusted quickly to eliminate the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere.

Project scientists hope the telescope will shed new light on the birth of the first galaxies and the nature of dark matter and dark energy, among other astronomical mysteries.

Image: Giant Magellan Telescope
An artist's conception shows the Giant Magellan Telescope in operation, with a semitrailer-truck parked alongside for a size comparison.

One of the telescope's mirror segments is nearing completion, and work on a second mirror began in January, project officials said.

“2012 is a banner year for the GMT project as we complete the design process, develop the primary mirrors, and begin work on the site in Chile," said project director Patrick McCarthy of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is just one of several huge telescopes currently under development, and it is by no means the largest instrument planned.

The world's largest telescope will be the European Extremely Large Telescope, a 138-foot (42-meter) project led by the European Southern Observatory that will also be built in the Atacama Desert. Construction of that $1.43 billion telescope is also slated to begin this year. The Atacama Desert is home to several other astronomy observatories because it typically gets 300 days of clear night skies each year.

This report was supplemented by You can follow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter . Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter and on .