PARANAL OBSERVATORY, Chile — Earlier this week, the European Southern Observatory irrevocably changed science for the better. At approximately 1:30 p.m. EDT (14:30 GMT), crews blasted off the top of Cerros Armazones, future site of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The blast may not seem like much, but it marks a giant leap forward in the future of astronomy. Located approximately 20 kilometers from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), once constructed the E-ELT will be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope and is expected to see its first light around 2024. Many different features make this telescope unique. It features a five mirror design, with its main mirror spanning 39-meters. The main mirror is composed of 798 different segments, each 1.4-meters wide and no more than 50 nanometers thick.
Thanks to its massive main mirror, the E-ELT will be able to capture 15 times more light than any other telescope and as a result, the images we will see will be a record fifteen times sharper than the images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. The E-ELT is (obviously) a ground-based telescope and as such will have a special mirror capable of distorting itself 1000 times per second to counteract the distortion effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Due to its sheer size, the structure supporting the telescope will weigh over 2,700 tons and the dome covering the telescope will have a diameter of 86-meters – that is equivalent to half a football field! Other than the new mirror design and massive structure, what makes this telescope so special? The design features enable the E-ELT to peer deeper into the universe and study the most distant galaxies in greater detail. With the help of this telescope, we may actually be able to directly image the expansion of the universe. It will also be used to examine exoplanets – from Earth-like planets to Jupiter-like gas giants – in unprecedented detail.
Yesterday’s blast loosened the first 500 cubic meter section of rock – just the first in a series of demolition steps. In total, 220,000 cubic meters will need to be leveled and removed to clear the way for the massive 150-meter by 300-meter platform the telescope will sit atop. The civil works projects began in March of 2014 and will take 16 months to complete. These projects include laying and maintaining service roads leading up to the platform as well as the platform itself.
We should start seeing images from E-ELT’s first light around 2024 and could potentially see the first glimpses of previous undiscovered portions of our universe. Kind of ironic how the very instrument that could potentially help us discover life beyond Earth is located in the driest, least hospitable environment for life here on Earth – the Atacama Desert. The Paranal Observatory in Chile is already home to some of the most powerful telescopes – like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) – in the world and will contain a telescopic triple threat with the addition of the E-ELT in the next decade. Can’t wait to see what new discoveries the “world’s largest eye on the sky” will bring.