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The Carnegie Institution for Science was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1902. It prides itself on its history in science and astronomy, said Eric D. Isaacs, a physicist and the institution's president.

In 1929 the astronomer Edwin Hubble, using Carnegie telescopes on Mount Wilson, in Pasadena, discovered that the universe was expanding.

In 1978 another Carnegie astronomer, Vera Rubin, confirmed that the stars and galaxies were swathed in clouds of mysterious dark matter, which scientists still do not understand. 

To walk among the observatory domes of the Atacama Desert is to brush your hair with the stars.

The Atacama, on a plateau high in the Chilean Andes, is one of the driest and darkest places in the world.

During the day, one can see to Bolivia, far to the east, where clouds billow into thunderstorms that will never moisten this region. At night, calm, unruffled winds off the Pacific Ocean produce some of the most exquisite stargazing conditions on Earth.

One evening in late January, the sky was so thick with stars that the bones of the constellations blurred into the background.

The Milky Way, our home galaxy, was rolling straight overhead, and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies to our own, floated alongside like ghosts. The Southern Cross, that icon of adventure and romance, loomed unmistakably above the southern horizon.

In the last half-century, astronomers from around the world have flocked to Chile and its silky skies, and now many of the largest telescopes on Earth have taken root along a sort of observatory alley that runs north-south for some 800 miles [ about 1,300 kilometers ] along the edge of the Atacama.

The residents include the Very Large Telescope, composed of four telescopes, each more than eight meters [27 feet] in diameter, and built by an international collaboration called the European Southern Observatory. 

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, another eight-meter telescope, is set to start operating next year, mapping the entire sky every three days.

[The ability of a telescope to harvest light from distant stars depends roughly on the area of its primary mirror. The Palomar Telescope in Southern California, an instrument that ruled astronomy into the 1990s, was five meters, or 200 inches, in diameter.]

Las Campanas Observatory, whose telescopes and offices are strung along a steep ridge on Cerro Las Campanas at an altitude of 8,500 feet, was one of the early adopters under the Atacama sky.

Taking pride of place along the ridge today are two innovative telescopes, the Twin Magellans, each with curved sweeps of aluminized glass 6.5 meters in diameter, side by side in separate enclosures.

But these are just a beginning. Las Campanas is an outpost of the Carnegie Observatories, based in Pasadena, Calif., which in turn is owned by the Carnegie Institution for Science, based in Washington.

The Carnegie Institution is a founder of and a driving force behind a consortium of 13 universities and institutions that aims to build the Giant Magellan  Telescope, or G.M.T., a multi billion-dollar instrument more powerful tan any existing ground-based telescope.

When completed, the telescope will have seven mirrors, each eight meters in diameter, that together will act as a 22 -meter-diameter telescope, roughly 20 times as powerful as Palomar. The G.M.T. will be built at the top of Cerro Las Campanas, two miles from the domes of the Carnegie's existing telescopes.

Equally gargantuan telescopes are being planned and built on mountain tops elsewhere around the world.

With these cathedrals of glass, steel and technology, astronomers hope to capture their first detailed images of faraway planets, the next important step in the quest to determine whether the cosmos beyond Earth is habitable, or perhaps even inhabited.

The Master Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks author Dennis Overbye.


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