When some of the world’s leading astronomers scaled a frosty Chilean peak in the middle of last month to break ground on a state-of-the-art US$1 billion telescope, they were stunned by an unexpectedly hazy glow.
On the floor of the Atacama Desert, about 1,700m below the planned Giant Magellan Telescope, new streetlights lining Chile’s north-south highway shone brightly.
To the naked eye, the Milky Way still looked sharp. However, to a sensitive state-of-the-art telescope scouring the deepest reaches of the known universe, the new ground light could be blinding.
“It’s like putting an oil rig in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef,” said University of Chile astronomy professor Guillermo Blanc, who first saw the lights at the opening.
“It’s insane,” he added. “Why are they trying to light up the Andes?”
Over the past 30 years, Chile has carved out a niche as the global hub for observational astronomy. More than a dozen major research telescopes have already been built, and by 2020, the South American country is to boast about 70 percent of the world’s astronomical infrastructure.
The low humidity and smooth airflow in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert create unrivaled visibility for the high-tech telescopes that scientists hope will shed light on the formation of the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
However, scientists say light pollution has increased sharply in the Atacama as mining cities swell and tourist numbers mushroom.
“There is an ongoing concern that ground-based astronomy is at risk long term. There just are not that many pristine sites left,” said Patrick McCarthy, the president of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is to be constructed at the Las Campanas Observatory in the southern Atacama.
“As these cities and highways grow, you start to wash out the faintest objects. The thing is, the faintest objects are the reason we’re building these telescopes in the first place,” McCarthy added.
Just more than 100km southwest of the Giant Magellan Telescope, the populations of Coquimbo and La Serena ballooned by almost 70 percent from 1992 to 2012. Nightclubs, sports arenas and sprawling suburbs all spew bright artificial light into the night sky.
Scientists at the Gemini Observatory, located on an ocher mountaintop more than 60km southeast of those cities, said increasing light pollution has already had a measurable effect.
“You can already detect streetlights at certain wavelengths,” Gemini astronomer Rene Rutten said. “If you were to stand up here on a dark, moonless night, you would see urban areas in the distance, and even what you can see just by the naked eye is very, very significant.”
The expansion of nearby Route 41 linking La Serena to Argentina is another threat, said Chris Smith, Chile mission head for a US-based research group currently constructing the US$665 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope adjacent to the Gemini.
If the proper measures are not taken, creeping light pollution could materially degrade the region’s skies in as little as a decade, he said.
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