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Aristarchos almost ready to set its sights on the universe

Greece is getting a window into the universe as construction of its first state-of-the-art telescope nears completion with capabilities similar to those of other leading installations of its kind in Hawaii and Chile. Its official opening is expected next summer, after quality controls have been carried out and the results made available, likely within the next few days. Situated at a height of 2,340 meters on the peak of Mount Helmos in the northern Peloponnese, about 150 kilometers west of Athens, the Aristarchos will, when fully operational, enable Greek astronomers to research major cosmological issues such as the theory of the expanding universe. The Ritchey-Chretien telescope has a range of 8-12 billion light years, equivalent to three-quarters of the range of the universe. Greek astronomers will be able to explore the structure of the universe and its individual galaxies and look for answers to questions such as: Is there life on other planets? Capabilities The Aristarchos will automatically become part of Opticon, an international consortium of major telescopes set up to facilitate research within Europe, according to Christos Goudis, director of the National Observatory’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Institute, which is responsible for the telescope. Next summer, the annual meeting of directors of Europe’s major telescopes to determine strategy for observational astronomy will be held in Kalavryta, on Mount Helmos, coinciding with the opening of Aristarchos. Aristarchos’s reflector is 2.3 meters in diameter on an azimuth platform that can be moved horizontally and vertically to ensure greater precision in focusing and scanning. A secondary reflector unit allows for adjustment to several axes. Already several features have been installed on the rear part of the base: – Two scanners/CCD cameras for depicting the morphology of objects. – A spectrograph built by the universities of Patras and Manchester, which can pinpoint gamma rays emitted when matter is absorbed in a black hole. – A unique high analysis spectrograph, donated by the University of Manchester, able to detect phenomena such as hydrogen nebula in which stars are born, and planetary nebula exploded during the last stages in the life of a star. Both spectrographs analyze light at its own speed and determine the chemical composition, temperature, density and dynamic of the target. Goudis said Helmos was chosen as the site for the telescope as it is one of the darkest regions of Europe. High-quality reflection The telescope is protected from light sources; on most days of the year it is above cloud level, ensuring a high-quality reflection. It is also close to a road network (8km from the Helmos ski center and 32km from Kalavryta). The building, the dome and auxiliary structure were built by the Athens National Observatory and the telescope itself by Carl Zeiss Jena. After it opens, it will have a permanent security staff, but thanks to its microwave link with the Observatory on Mount Pendeli, north of Athens, astronomers will be able to use Aristarchos by remote control. Procedures began in 1998 with the signing of a contract. Over the past seven years, Greek scientists have had to overcome a number of obstacles without much support from the state. Although most of the installations had been completed, the road linking the ski center with the peak was in such terrible condition that the three scientists who traveled the 8-kilometer route almost daily, described it as a «terror route.» In the end, it took the personal intervention of Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas to open up the road. Sioufas, who is expected to visit the site this month, has promised substantial financial support for the Kalavryta Astronomy Institute (which is officially in charge of Aristarchos). In the next few days the site is expected to be linked to the power grid; until now it has been operating on generator power. So far the cost of the project has totaled 5.87 million euros. When completed, the telescope will help upgrade optical technology and the dissemination of scientific knowledge by providing training at the site, according to Goudis. «The telescope will boost scientific sectors such as the construction of specialized sensing and imaging instruments. CCD cameras now on the market were originally built to meet the needs of astronomy,» he said. Thanks to the Municipality of Kalavryta and the efforts of its mayor, Thanassis Papadopoulos, this «people’s observatory» will allow ordinary people a look into outer space.