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Department of Physics

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Durham scientists play key role as construction starts on world’s largest telescope

(20 July 2017)

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)

Construction work has begun on the world’s largest visible to infrared telescope – and Durham University is playing a key role.

The European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is being built on top of the Cerro Armazones mountain, in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, as part of a large international collaboration involving Durham and the UK’s other principal partners.

When it’s complete in 2024 it will be capable of collecting more light than all of the other telescopes in this class combined.

Planets and distant stars

This collecting power will open a new window on to the Universe, allowing astronomers to observe planets in our solar system and those orbiting distant stars in unprecedented depth.

Its power will also allow researchers to explore fundamental questions about how the Universe was formed and the forces that shape it.

Astronomers and engineers at Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation (CfAI) are involved in three of the proposed instruments for the ELT including:

  • Developing adaptive optics technology for HARMONI to remove atmospheric blurring, allowing astronomers to see distant objects more clearly;
  • Designing the overall mechanical structure and providing adaptive optics for the multi-object spectrograph MOSAIC, which will allow astronomers to observe different areas of the sky at the same time; and
  • Providing adaptive optics and highly efficient optical fibre connections for the HIRES spectrograph, which will give detailed information about single objects in the night sky.

Some of the components will be built and tested at the CfAI’s facility at the NETPark science and technology park in County Durham, UK.

Patience and vision

Eighty per cent of the funding for the ELT is already in place, meaning that activity around the telescope is starting to increase.

Professor Simon Morris, Head of Durham University’s Physics Department, is a member of the European Southern Observatory Council, and one of the UK’s ELT project leaders.

He said: “My team started working on the instrument proposals for the ELT for ESO in 2007 and we have come really far in the last decade.

“You need to have patience and vision to see a project like this through, because it will be at least another seven years before the telescope is fully operational.

“At ESO, we’ve been able to award real contracts to real companies to start building the telescope itself, meaning it’s really going to happen.”

The incredible scale of the ELT and the range of its instrumentation means it can help to address a huge list of scientific questions.

Looking back through history

Professor Morris said: “The science we are hoping to get back from the ELT is incredibly wide-ranging. We wanted the project to support research into as many different areas as possible.

“It will be used for everything from looking at planets in our solar system to other stars and supermassive black holes, to answering questions about fundamental physics and the constants of nature.

“One of the things I am most looking forward to finding out is how gas came together in the early Universe to form galaxies. Because the speed of light is finite, with a powerful telescope like the ELT we can look far enough away to look back through history and actually see the time when these galaxies were forming.”

The UK ELT Project Office is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It co-ordinates activities across the UK’s principal partners for research and development for the project including Durham University, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space facility, in close collaboration with the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Click here to see an infographic showing how the ELT works and here to find out more about how the UK is contributing to this project.

Artist's impression of the Extremely Large Telescope (Credit ESO/L. Calçada)