The highest observatory in the world just opened

The Verge

The University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) officially opened on Tuesday after 26 years of planning and construction.
Sitting 18,500 feet high on Mount Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the 6.5-meter optical-infrared TAO telescope is now the highest in the world.
TAO replaces a smaller version of itself called MiniTAO, which held the highest telescope distinction before it.
It beats the Chacaltaya Observatory, owned by the University of Madrid and sitting 17,191 feet on Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia.
The next three record holders in the top five are also in Chile’s Atacama desert: the James Ax Observatory (17,100 feet); the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (17,030 feet); and the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory (sources vary; about 16,700 feet).
Many of the world’s major observatories are built in the high-altitude, northeastern area of Chile, near Bolivia, because of its clear skies.
The benefits of TAO sitting at such an extreme altitude come at a cost, however, as humans are pretty ill-suited for life that high up.
The team plans to eventually operate the telescope remotely from a lower base facility to avoid such issues.


Tuesday marked the official opening of the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO), which has been planned and built for 26 years. Now the highest telescope in the world, the 6:05-meter optical-infrared TAO telescope is perched 18,500 feet above sea level atop Mount Chajnantor in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

TAO has superseded MiniTAO, a scaled-down version of itself that was the highest telescope ranking. It surpasses the University of Madrid’s Chacaltaya Observatory, which is located 17,191 feet up Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia.

Atacama Cosmology Telescope (17,030 feet), James Ax Observatory (17,100 feet), and Llano de Chajnantor Observatory (sources vary; approximately 16,700 feet) are the next three record holders in the top five, and they are all located in Chile’s Atacama desert. Because of the clear skies in this high-altitude region of Chile, northeast of Bolivia, many of the world’s largest observatories are located there. The nation’s tax breaks for these kinds of initiatives are also beneficial.

As a result of its high altitude and reduced air moisture, TAO is able to observe “almost the entire range of near-infrared wavelengths,” including mid-infrared. As stated by Phys . org, no other earthbound telescope is capable of that. These terrestrial observatories can capture higher-resolution images of space than their space-based counterparts because of their larger apertures, according to the University of Tokyo. According to the University of Tokyo’s announcement, the telescope will be used to study “the birth of galaxies and the origin of planets” starting in 2025.

By observing the same objects at different wavelengths, it may also be able to provide researchers with new insights beyond what can be seen with the nearby ALMA telescope.

The drawbacks of TAO sitting at such a high altitude are that humans are not well adapted to life at such altitudes. The project’s principal investigator, Yuzuru Yoshii, stated that construction workers on the telescope required frequent medical examinations and oxygen inhalation. The project began in 1998.

Even the researchers working inside will need to take safety measures to avoid altitude sickness, as noted by Phys . org. To get around these problems, the team eventually intends to operate the telescope remotely from a facility located lower on the base.

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