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Astronomy's next step: behemoth telescopes, monster costs

To help pay for tomorrow's world-class observatories, astronomers are forging international partnerships.

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At sundown on any given night, mountaintop turrets around the world rumble to life as astronomers train their telescopes on the sky. The quest: to write the history of the cosmos from clues they find in feeble starlight from the edge of the visible universe.

Now groups in Europe and North America aim to build observatories that would leave Galileo breathless. They envision behemoths up to four times bigger than today's largest optical telescopes, which currently rely on 10-meter (33-foot) light-gathering mirrors.

These ambitions are pushing this corner of astronomy into the era of "big science," where the cost of building and operating world-class observatories or laboratories outpaces a single country's willingness to foot the bill. Major projects are planned, built, and run by a host of international partners. The era has long since dawned on fields such as high-energy physics, fusion-energy research, and other areas of space science. Now, the highly visible and highly competitive field of ground-based astronomy stands on the threshold.

Last week, the European Southern Observatory, a consortium of 11 European countries, gave its astronomers the OK to spend 57 million euros ($75 million) to develop designs for a 40-meter telescope. Astronomers hope to start using it in 2017.

In North America, two groups – a consortium of US and Canadian universities and a separate alliance of US and Australian research institutes and universities – are working on 30-meter and 22-meter designs. Their designs cleared key reviews earlier this year, and one group has cast its first mirror. They are now refining the designs and trying to raise the money and organize the management structures to build and run them. Price tags for each of the North American projects range from $500 million to $750 million – roughly the amount NASA paid to build and launch its latest Mars probe.

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