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[MALARGÜE] The world's largest 'cosmic ray' observatory, which opened officially this month in Argentina, is already bringing social and economic benefits to local communities.

The Pierre Auger Observatory is the result of a 15-nation collaboration whose facilities are spread across a vast area of Argentina.

Conceived in 1992 by James Cronin, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for physics, and Alan Watson of the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, the observatory will study cosmic rays — the Universe's highest-energy particles.

The observatory's first scientific results, announced at its inauguration on 10-12 November are, says Cronin, "very modest", representing just three months of study.

However, some of the observatory's other impacts can already be seen in Malargüe, the small town that hosts its headquarters.

Since construction began, the observatory has attracted tourists — now at least 5,000 visit each year. Local businesses increasingly need to deal with visitors who don't speak Spanish, so the presence of the observatory was influential to the foundation of an English school in the town.

Malargüe's mayor Raúl Rodríguez says that the international collaboration has also enabled the town to send three students to study engineering at the University of Michigan in the United States.

Rodríguez adds that Malargüe is considering starting up a university because so many scientists are living in or visiting the town.

Physicists and engineers from the observatory bring benefits to local industry by sharing their expertise.

"We taught manufacturers how to use complex equipment and how to improve their techniques and quality control so that they can make much better products", says physicist Carlos Ourivio Escobar, the observatory's coordinator in Brazil. Companies there supply key components of the observatory's cosmic ray detectors.

Cosmic rays form when tiny particles from outer space — moving at close to the speed of light — collide with particles in the Earth's atmosphere.

The Pierre Auger Observatory was named after a French physicist who lived from 1899 to 1993.

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