UK commits £88m to the world’s largest telescope

The UK is to invest £88m in the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the world’s biggest optical stargazing facility.

Several British institutions are already contributing to the development of optics and instruments for E-ELT, which is scheduled for completion in Mount Cerro Armazones in Chile in 2022.

E-ELT will be housed inside a structure the size of Wembley stadium, with a 39m-wide primary mirror (made up from almost 800 1.4m-wide hexagonal sections) collecting 15 times more light than any existing optical telescope.

Intended to investigate visible and infra-red light wavelengths from deeper into the universe than humanity has been able to look before, the telescope will investigate planets orbiting other stars and is hoped to be able to image some of the oldest stars and galaxies in the sky, helping to explain the origin and evolution of the universe.

The project will cost a total of £1.1bn and is a collaboration between 14 countries. The UK’s contribution, over 10 years, is in addition to its £18m a year subscription to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) organisation, which oversees the European telescopes in Chile.

Contracts associated with building the telescope worth some £9m have already been placed within the UK, and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills expects this to rise to some £90m or higher by the end of the project.

‘This significant investment reaffirms the government’s commitment to cutting-edge science,’ said science minister David Willetts in a statement. ‘It will ensure the UK plays a leading role in a ground-breaking international research project and our world-class research base has access to the latest equipment.’

The E-ELT’s 39m primary mirror will comprise 798 1.4m sections, prototypes of which are being made in Wales

The UK’s contribution to E-ELT includes development of adaptive optics systems, which will help the telescope produce steady images despite the constant movement of the gases in the atmosphere.

The telescope’s secondary mirror, which focuses the light collected by the huge primary mirror onto the optical instruments at its heart, will be able to change its shape many times per second to compensate for atmospheric fluctuations, which produce the characteristic twinkle of distant stars.

Durham University is leading two projects on adaptive optics, in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), which is based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Prof John Womersley, chief executive of the STFC, said: ‘E-ELT is one of the highest priotities for the 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 years to come.’

Other contributions from the UK to E-ELT include the manufacture of prototype mirror segments at Glyndwr University in North Wales, which has expertise in optical metrology and high-precision polishing. Glyndwr is producing seven full-size segments as part of a €5m project which began last year.