Posted by: mattburleigh | June 19, 2014

Watch astronomers blow up a mountain

Sometime after 17:30BST today, engineers and astronomers of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will blow the top off a mountain in the Atacama desert in Chile in preparation for construction of the world’s largest telescope. The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a main mirror 39m in diameter. In contrast, the largest telescopes in use today have main mirrors of 8m and 11m in diameter. Those are big: the E-ELT will be a behemoth, collecting around 25 times as much light as a single one of the largest telescopes in use today, and more than all of them put together!
You can learn more about the E-ELT here, and watch the mountain exploding here from 17:30BST.

The E-ELT should see first light in a decade’s time, finance and construction timetables permitting. It’s funded by a consortium of countries including the UK through ESO, which is the organisation that runs Europe’s current telescopes in Chile. Not all funding is in place…. we are still waiting for Brazil to commit, but Spain recently joined, which was welcome news. The UK is currently leading the design and construction of one of the first instruments, and strongly involved in several others that are either approved or being proposed.

The E-ELT as it will hopefully look

I’ve been involved in the E-ELT project since virtually the start. Back in 2003 I attended a workshop in Marseilles in which we brainstormed on the science we could do with an enormous telescope. At that stage, a concept of a 100m wide “Overwhelmingly Large Telescope” (OWL) was being considered! I think I got a bit of a reputation for banging on about building something big enough to image an Earth around another star…… A year later, and we were further developing the science ideas with the help of Grappa in Florence (remember that @chrisinembra and @sarahkendrew?). When the E-ELT was officially launched in 2006 in Marseilles, it’s main mirror was to be 42m wide. A significant number?

I’ve contributed at various times to the science driving ideas for the E-ELT and its instruments, and have served in the UK E-ELT Steering Committee for quite a few years. Our job there is to oversee the UK’s budget (ie our government investment through the STFC research council) for technology and instrument development.

So today is an important and exciting milestone in the project. Once the mountain, Cerro Amazones, has been blasted and cleared, it’s ready for construction to begin….

Cerro Amazones is within sight of Cerro Paranal, home of ESO’s current four largest telescopes (the VLT), and our new transiting extra-solar planet survey, NGTS. Here’s the NGTS site with Cerro Amazones in the background:

Hopefully that’s far enough away…

And finally. That name. E-ELT. On radio 4 Today this morning John Humphries called it “boring”. He’s right, it is. But it’s also very European. Inoffensive. Precisely descriptive. Translates. Hell, after more than 20 years the Very Large Telescopes are still called the VLTs (they have individual names after local native gods, but that hasn’t really caught on). At the E-ELT launch in Marseilles in 2006 I suggested to the then ESO Director General that we call it the “Polo Telescope” on account of the large hole in the main mirror design. The joke didn’t go down well. Do they have polos in France? Perhaps it should have been the Douglas Adams Telescope. But then 42m was de-scoped to 39m. Mind you, I suspect Adams would probably have found that very amusing….

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