Changing Planet

Giant Blast Marks Milestone for Future Monster Telescope

Artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The E-ELT will be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world—the world’s biggest eye on the sky. Credit: ESO

Bigger is better—especially when it comes to telescopes.

Today, astronomers’ dreams of the largest telescope in the world come one step closer. It all starts with a bang at the groundbreaking event for the European Extremely Large Telescope. (Related: “World’s Largest Backyard Telescope.”)

The top of the 9,842-foot-high (3,000 meter) Cerro Armazones mountain, in the Chilean Andes, will be blasted off on June 19 at 12:30 p.m. EDT (16:30 UT) to create the level foundation for what is expected to be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world. About 130 feet (40 meters) of the mountaintop will be strategically lofted off the top of the peak. The blast will remove an estimated million tons of rock.

You can watch the entire groundbreaking event live online here.

This ground breaking is a significant step in the telescope’s journey from drawing board to reality. 

Dubbed the “world’s biggest eye on the sky,” the E-ELT will truly be a giant among giants, a “light bucket” with a mirror stretching nearly 130 feet (40 meters) across that will collect 15 times more light than the current record holders, the 33-foot (10 meter) Gran Telescopio Canarias and the similarly sized Keck Observatory.

This artist impression shows the upcoming E-ELT and current giant observatories sizes compared with the Statue of Liberty.  Credit: ESO
This artist’s impression shows the upcoming E-ELT and current giant observatories in a size comparison with the Statue of Liberty. Credit: ESO

Expected to capture its first light in 2023, the giant eye will offer views of the cosmos at an unprecedented resolution, bettering the venerable Hubble Space Telescope by at least 16 times in terms of image sharpness.

Astronomers are salivating at the chance to get the first views through this behemoth, which will be able to tackle the biggest astronomical challenges of our time. (Related: “Top Discoveries Awaiting NASA’s Next Big Telescope.”)

“The E-ELT will allow astronomers to reach deeper into space, further back in time, and more intimately into the workings of the universe than any other visible-to-infrared telescope ever built,” said Aprajita Verma, a deputy project scientist with the multinational E-ELT project, who is based at Oxford University. “From probing the first galaxies that formed in the universe, to studying extrasolar planets and looking for signs of life, we can expect breakthrough advances and new discoveries with the E-ELT.”

The E-ELT may be the first instrument capable of finding the fabled Earth 2.0—a rocky planet similar in size to our own that has an atmosphere and has liquid water on its surface. It will also conduct the ultimate cosmic archaeological digs as it peers back in space and time to explore the very first stars and galaxies born in the universe.

Check out this awesome video trailer that showcases this new giant window on the universe that will now begin construction.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
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