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Durham University News

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Durham University plays leading role in equipping the world’s largest telescope

(4 March 2013)

Artist's impression of the E-ELT courtesy of ESO

Durham is leading two pivotal projects to provide instruments for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), one of the biggest science collaborations in history.

The £1.1 billion E-ELT, which will take shape in Chile over the next ten years, will make huge strides toward our understanding of the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy and planets outside our solar system.

The structure will be similar in size to Wembley Stadium and, at 39 metres in diameter, its mirror will collect 15 times more light than any existing telescope. It will produce images 16 times sharper than the Hubble space-based telescope.

Professor Simon Morris, Durham University’s Deputy Head of Physics and co-Principal Investigator for the proposed E-ELT instrument, EAGLE, said:

“Every area of astronomy, from planets around other stars, through to the study of the first galaxies formed in the Universe will be revolutionised. Astonishing discoveries will be made possible by the huge collecting area and fantastic detail that can be resolved by E-ELT.

“This announcement comes just after an international meeting in Germany to discuss the science and instruments planned for the E-ELT.”

A Durham University colleague, Professor Richard Myers, is currently heading up separate but related research into adaptive optics – rapidly shape-changing mirrors which would allow scientists to measure the amazing spatial details potentially provided by E-ELT.

Also working on the project from the UK are the University of Oxford and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), as well as other leading international institutes and partners in industry.

The UK’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has just confirmed an £88 million investment in the project, which will take shape in Chile over the next ten years.

The investment will ensure UK scientists and engineers, supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), will be heavily involved in the construction and operation of the telescope and its instruments, set to be the most advanced of its kind.

UK industry has already won £9 million-worth of contracts, and that figure is predicted to increase as much as ten-fold before 2023, when construction is expected to be completed.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “This significant investment reaffirms the Government’s commitment to cutting-edge science. It will ensure the UK plays a leading role in a ground-breaking international project and our world-class research base has access to the latest equipment.”

In addition to significantly enhancing worldwide scientific knowledge, the E-ELT will benefit the UK in other ways. Technology developed for astronomy is already being applied across many sectors, including extending the life of artificial knee joints, diagnosing eye diseases, improving the performance of industrial lasers and laser fusion research.

Professor Colin Cunningham, from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office.

He said: “UK teams of scientists and engineers have built strong positions over the last few years to enable them to make major contributions to the instruments, telescope engineering and optical systems.

“This will culminate in UK astronomers having the opportunity to make breakthrough discoveries in exoplanet research and in understanding the origins and evolution of galaxies.”

The UK has already played a major part in the E-ELT project, leading the development of the science case, developing instrument designs, optical technologies and telescope systems, and developing manufacturing processes.

The UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space, together with leading international institutes.

STFC Chief Executive Officer, Professor John Womersley, said: “E-ELT is one of the highest priorities for STFC and the UK astronomy community. It not only has the potential for enormous benefit to UK industry but will be the world’s pre-eminent astronomical observatory for many years to come.”

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