The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) governing body has given the green light for construction to begin on what will be the world’s largest telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Due for completion in 2024, the first of a two-stage construction project has a budget of one billion Euros to constuct a fully working telescope along with a selection of powerful instruments. The second phase will be authorised next year, and will be the largest ESO contract to date; boosting UK and European optical manufacturing industries.
The E-ELT 39-metre aperture optical and infrared telescope will be located on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama Desert, 20 kilometres from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. It will be the world’s largest ‘eye on the sky’, and will enable many scientific discoveries related to exoplanets, the stellar composition of nearby galaxies and the deep Universe.
The construction of the E-ELT was approved by ESO’s Council in June 2012, and work began in June 2014 when the summit of the Cerro Armazones Mountain was blown off to make way for the E-ELT.
The current funding commitments to the E-ELT have now reached more than 90 per cent of the total cost of the first phase.Telescope components that are not yet funded include parts of the adaptive optics system, the innermost five rings of segments of the telescope’s main mirror (210 mirror segments) and a spare set of primary mirror segments needed for more efficient telescope operation in the future.
The construction of these components will be approved as additional funding becomes available, and the postponement will not reduce the scientific achievements the telescope will be able to accomplish at the end of phase one.
The second contract for the telescope dome and main structure is due to be authorised at the end of 2015, and will be the largest contract in ESO's history. This will offer significant industrial opportunities for European and UK companies to participate, with UK companies already securing more than £9 million in contracts. And, this figure could rise at least ten-fold before construction is completed.
The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is one of 15 ESO members involved in the E-ELT. STFC’s Professor Colin Cunningham, UK E-ELT programme director, commented: 'The UK E-ELT Project Office is very happy that the E-ELT project will now move into full construction phase. This means that the contracting process can now begin for the big-ticket items like the Dome and Telescope Main Structure and Primary Mirror Segments. Building the world’s biggest optical and infrared telescope provides huge opportunities for both the UK astronomy community and UK Industry.'