World’s largest ground-based telescope is given ‘go ahead’
(12 June 2012)
The programme for the world’s largest ground-based optical telescope – which includes major input from scientists at Durham University – has been approved.
The Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) gave the go-ahead to the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) programme at a meeting yesterday (Monday June 11).
Construction will not commence until provisional votes by four of the member states, including the UK, have been confirmed and 90 per cent of the funding required has been secured. Full details can be found in the ESO press release: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1225/
The E-ELT is a 39-m diameter optical/infrared telescope, planned to be tens of times more sensitive than any current telescope of its kind.
Collecting at least 12 times more light than the current largest optical telescopes, it will push forward our understanding of planets beyond our solar system, including those where life might exist and the nature and distribution of dark matter and dark energy that is thought to make up most of our Universe but as yet is not directly observed or understood.
The UK is playing several leading and key roles in the project. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC’s) UK Astronomy Technology Centre is coordinating the UK contributions, in collaboration with industry and university partners.
Durham University, along with other UK universities, is playing a key role in the development of five of the instruments aboard the E-ELT. The University of Oxford and UK ATC, in collaboration with other international partners, is also leading on one of two ‘first light’ instruments, HARMONI.
Professor Simon Morris, Deputy Head of Physics, Durham University, and co-Principal Investigator for the proposed E-ELT instrument EAGLE, said: “The European Extremely Large Telescope will greatly surpass the already amazing suite of four Very Large Telescopes.
“It will have a huge light collecting area, ways of correcting for atmospheric blurring, and the ability to observe large numbers of faint, distant galaxies at once.
“This will allow UK astronomers, in collaboration with our European colleagues, to solve many current mysteries about the way our own galaxy formed. UK astronomical instrument builders are also very excited to be taking a number of leading roles in the planned cameras and spectrographs for the telescope.”
The UK is involved with several Phase A studies including HARMONI, EAGLE, OPTIMOS-EVE, CODEX, EPICS, METIS. In addition, a project called CANARY, will prototype key concepts in adaptive optics, particularly those required for the EAGLE instrument.
These projects will ultimately provide a suite of mutually-complementary instruments for observations of the faintest planets, stars, and galaxies that are well beyond the reach of existing telescopes.
Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive of STFC, said: “Our commitment to the E-ELT reflects its high priority in our science strategy, the world-leading position of the UK astronomy community, and the potential returns to UK industry. ESO's announcement is an important step towards construction, though the final go-ahead depends of course on obtaining approval by a number of governments (including ours) to such a long term financial commitment”.
UK industry and research institutions can expect to be richly rewarded for the UK’s involvement in E-ELT. Already around €10million (£8million) has been won by the UK for work in the pre-construction phase.
Moving into construction phase, the opportunities for industrial contracts will be open to competition within the member states, to at least a value of €800million (£645million). Work done so far puts UK industry in a strong position to be successful in bidding against this, especially in the areas of optics manufacture, detectors, software and structural engineering.
Director of STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Gillian Wright, said: “The E-ELT is an enormously exciting and important project that will enable astronomers to study the universe in unprecedented detail. The major UK involvement in the planned first light instrumentation is a result of our world leading scientific and technical capabilities. This deep involvement in the construction phase will ensure that UK scientists are at the forefront of discoveries with the new telescope.”
The UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, STFC's UK ATC and RAL Space, together with other leading international institutes and UK industry. More information on the UK role in the E-ELT can be found here: http://www.eelt.org.uk/.