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[SANTIAGO] A US$550-million project to build the world's largest telescope in Chile's Atacama desert is to provide US$700,000 a year to develop Chilean science and improve the health and education of local communities.

The decision to include investment in local science and local communities as part of the project was taken after months of negotiations between the Chilean government and the North American and European consortiums behind the telescope — principally the Associated Universities Incorporated (AUI) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Nearly half of the US$700,000 a year will go to a special fund for the advancement of Chilean astronomy, to be administered by the national science council, CONICYT. A number of projects to improve health, education and ecotourism infrastructure in the area will receive US$180,000 a year from the fund, and the remainder will be incorporated into a national fund for regional development.

Chilean astronomers will also be granted access to 10 per cent of the observing time of the telescope, known as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is due to be completed by 2011. Located near San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the Andes, ALMA will consist of 64 high-altitude antennae, which will have a resolution 10 times greater than the Hubble space telescope.

"ALMA will be a giant unique eye, because of its capacity to collect data about the beginning of the universe," says Daniel Hofstadt, representative of ESO in Chile.