New Funding For European Extremely Large Telescope
October 3, 2011

New Funding For European Extremely Large Telescope

The Science Technology and Facilities Council (STFC) confirmed that it will provide nearly $5.5 million (US) to UK scientists to develop key instruments for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is slated to be the biggest optical and infrared telescope in the world.

With funding in place, British astronomers will now be able to take a leading role in building the critical scientific instruments needed for the E-ELT, which will be constructed in Chile and should be complete by the end of the decade.

E-ELT is expected to be large enough and powerful enough to uncover how the universe evolved in its earliest years and could even help reveal whether life exists anywhere else in the universe.

The funding will be available for astronomers working at Durham and Oxford Universities, and others, to develop instruments and experiments for the project. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) partners are expected to make a final decision on the $1.5-billion project by December, and to also conclude which countries will build which parts of the telescope.

The STFC fund is aimed at putting British researchers and companies in a position to win the bigger contracts for the telescope as the project develops.

The current front-runner for the telescope´s home is at the top of Cerro Armazones, a 10,000-foot-high mountain that is ideal for observations due to its atmospheric quality. If the site proves useful, engineers must level the mountain top using explosives.

ESO´s Gonzalo Argandona took reporters from Astronomy Now to the remote site where the telescope is scheduled to be built. He explained that building the telescope itself in the harsh, remote region will not prove the most difficult part of the project.

“The main challenge will be maintaining the mirror segments once the telescope is built,” he said. The telescope will have 5 mirrors, with the main mirror consisting of 1,000 hexagonal mirror segments, each a little more than 4.5 feet wide. It will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye, and 26 times more light than a single 27-foot Very Large Telescope (VLT) from the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

“A mirror coating facility like the one in Paranal which is used to recoat the single mirrors of the VLT once every 18 months will be needed, but for so many mirror segments it will be a continuous process of maintaining them,” said Argandona.

And because of the difficult access route and remote location, the main control room for the E-ELT will be located at Paranal Observatory 50 miles away, negating the need for astronomers to live and work at the E-ELT. 

The telescope will also host nine unique instruments. STFC´s funding will enable continued studies on various instruments including the construction of HARMONI, a spectrograph that will work at both optical and infrared wavelengths.

“If you imagine an image of a galaxy, then for every point on the galaxy [that you image with HARMONI] you would get a spectrum, which tells you about the chemical composition at that point and the velocity at which that part of the galaxy is moving,” explained Professor Isobel Hook, the UK E-ELT Project Scientist from the University of Oxford, told Astronomy Now reporter Emily Baldwin. “The UK is also involved in the design of an instrument that is specialized to take images and basic spectra of extra-solar planets. This instrument will have its own very specialized adaptive optics system to provide extremely sharp images needed to separate the planet from its parent star.”

STFC´s funding to continue design studies on a variety of instruments allows the UK to play a central role in the whole project. “In the case of HARMONI it means the UK could lead the work and the team can actually start constructing the instrument,” Hook told Astronomy Now. “If the E-ELT is approved by ESO Council in December then UK scientists will be in a very exciting position, having access to the whole telescope through our membership of ESO, and expert knowledge and observing time on one of the first instruments.”

“This funding from STFC will allow the UK to put itself in the best possible position to develop key instruments for the E-ELT with its international partners,” said Professor Colin Cunningham, leader of the UK E-ELT project team. “The fact that ESO has already highly rated the early designs for these instruments is testament to the world-leading expertise of our scientists.”


Image Caption: June 2009 version of the design of the 40-meter-class European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure, currently being planned by ESO (artist´s impression). The E-ELT will be mounted on a central concrete pier. It will be shielded from the wind by a dome enclosure. This dome will have an approximate height of 80m and a footprint of about 100m diameter. Credit: ESO


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