June 12, 2012

Organization Gives Go-Ahead For Giant Telescope Project

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com

[ Watch the video ]

The European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) has been given the go-ahead by the organization overseeing the project to move on with it.

The $1.3 billion telescope will look for planets outside the solar system and those orbiting other stars in "habitable zones."

The telescope will use a 127-feet mirror, helping it gather more than 12 times the light that the largest optical telescopes being used today gather.

"Its unique combination of sharp imaging and huge light collecting area will allow us to observe some of the most exciting phenomena in the universe in much better detail," Isobel Hook, a scientist at Oxford University who is working on the project, said in a statement.

"For example we'll be able to observe distant galaxies in the process of formation, see the effects of massive black holes on their environment and even search for planets in 'habitable zones' beyond our solar system, where life could exist."

The ELT will be able to search in both visible and near-infrared light for objects, and image sensitivity and resolution of other planets.

Six European nations declared their full support of the project, while four other nations declared their support pending approval from their governments. The remaining four said they continue to work towards gaining a full approval.

Having two-thirds of the European nations commit to the project is a sufficient enough vote to give the European Space Observatory a green light to proceed with the project.

Prof. Isobel Hook is the UK E-ELT project scientist from the University of Oxford. She said Monday's decision was hugely exciting.

"We've all been working towards this moment for a long time, and this decision means we're now just a few years away from using this telescope," Prof Isobel Hook, project scientists from the University of Oxford, told BBC.

"The E-ELT's great size will give us much sharper images, provided we can correct for atmospheric turbulence [which makes stars twinkle], and that will be part of the telescope's design. The E-ELT will also have a much larger collecting area than any telescope we have now. That combination of sharpness and collecting area is what will make it so powerful."

One of the first tasks in getting the ELT active is making an area at the top of Cerro Armazones, a mountain nearby ESO's Very Large Telescope facility, clear to house it.

The mountain will need to be flattened at the top with enough room to fit a football stadium on it in order to fit the telescope.

However, even before that project goes underway, a road will need to be constructed so the heavy equipment can be brought up to the top of the mountain.

The funding for the road and design work on some of ELT's Number Four mirror was approved last December.