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New telescopes could revolutionize astronomy, but at what price?

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And both groups are looking over their shoulders at the Europeans, who in April approved a site for the European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), whose 40-meter light-gathering mirror would make it the largest of the three projects.

Even in an era of space-based telescopes, the case for more glass on the ground is compelling, astronomers say. The light-gathering mirrors on space telescopes tend to be relatively small compared with their ground-based counterparts. So they can't perform the detailed studies of distant objects as efficiently as the larger, ground-based observatories.

But these new telescopes are expected to cost between $700 million and $1 billion just to build. Operating costs are likely to range from $70 million to $100 million a year, several researchers say.

With all of the projects bidding for government money, "there may be some hard choices ahead," says David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, Ariz.

In the United States, the choices revolve not only around which, if either, of the two projects to support.

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