Massive telescope gets green light

2012-06-12 09:32

Paris - A plan to build the biggest land-based optical telescope in the world has cleared an important hurdle, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced.

Two-thirds of ESO's governing council gave full or provisional approval for the so-called European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which opens the way to starting work on the project, it said in a press release.

The €1.083bn ($1.35bn) scheme entails building a telescope with a massive light-catching mirror 39.3m wide, several times the size of the biggest optical telescopes today.

It will be sited on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO's existing Paranal Observatory, where the extremely arid conditions and high altitude offer excellent viewing of the skies.

"This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project," ESO's director general, Tim de Zeeuw, was quoted as saying after the council meeting in Garching, Germany.

International venture

If all goes well, the E-ELT would start operations about a decade from now, becoming one of the great astronomical assets of the 21st century alongside a planned radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) set to be built in South Africa and Australia.

"The E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the 'habitable zones' where life could exist - one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy," ESO said.

ESO, which marks its 50th anniversary, is Europe's biggest international venture in astronomy.

In Monday's vote, six out of 10 countries gave firm approval and four gave "ad referendum" approval, meaning that they needed an official green light from their governments.

Four other countries said they supported the scheme and were "actively working towards joining the programme in the near future," ESO said.

Work on building the E-ELT will start once the "ad referendum" votes are made official and financial commitments are secured for at least 90% of the total cost.

  • zane.zeiler - 2012-06-12 09:54

    Wow 39.3m is one massive mirror! And here I'm sitting with a pipe dream "excuse the pun" of one day building a 22 inch Dobsonian...

  • Annarie Oosthuizen - 2012-06-12 20:22

    So which is going to be bigger and better, E-ELT or SKA? We only received part of SKA and need to share it with the Australians, that was disappointing. Now that another mega telescope is being built, I kind of feel even less special.

      Fanie - 2012-06-12 21:09

      SKA is a radio telescope, this is an optical telescope - completely different system, but in observing the heavens - the bigger ie more capturing area the better

      Pastor - 2012-06-12 21:22

      No one is going to be better, the variety of telescopes are used for different kinds of observation. SKA is a radio telescope, it sees radio frequency in the electro magnetic spectrum, while this is an optical telescope. The accuracy of a radio telescope is not about physical size of the antennae, but about the distances apart of each linked in dish. SKA will be able to see radiation at radio frequencies which an optical telescope would not be unable to see. Yet SKA has its own limitations which a Optical telescope is better equipped. So if you want to map the universe an pick up radiation and remnants of the big bang, a radio telescope like SKA is your weapon of choice. But for planetary observation an optical telescope can be a better option. As for pure observational power, SKA will have no rival, and probably won't have for decades to come.

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