Construction begins on world's largest telescope in Chilean desert

When it's up and running, the E-ELT will be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world.

Touted to be some five times larger than the top observing instruments in use today, the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) began in Chile on Friday.

Located in the world's driest desert - the Atacama - on a 3,000 meter-high mountain, the ELT should be operational in 2024. The ETL is also being equipped to be able to correct turbulence in the atmosphere while observing distant planets and star systems. This mirror will be housed in an enormous rotating dome of 85 meters in diameter, which is practically as big as the area of a soccer pitch. But the telescope promises to offer much more than just size, as it has the potential to go above and beyond what the Hubble Space Telescope now offers. The first stone ceremony for the telescope was attended by the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, on 26 May 2017.

ESO, which has its headquarters near Munich, oversees three other observation locations in Chile's desiccated Atacama region.

The ELT's spectrograph is being designed and constructed by scientists from Oxford University.

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With that extremely large mirror, the E-ELT will be trained on the heavens to study exoplanets, supermassive black holes, the nature of dark energy and the formation of galaxies in the early universe.

A time capsule, created by members of the ESO team and sealed at the event, will serve as a lasting memory of the research and the scale of ambition and commitment behind it. Contents include a copy of a book describing the original scientific aims of the telescope, images of the staff that have and will play a role in its construction and a poster of an ELT visualisation.

"It will also raise new questions we can not conceive of today, as well as improving life here on Earth through new technology and engineering breakthroughs".

The dry atmosphere of the Atacama provides as near ideal observing conditions as it is possible to find on Earth, with some 70 percent of the world's astronomical infrastructure slated to be located in the region by the 2020s. According to the ESO, that makes the facility itself the largest ever built for an optical and infrared telescope. The official cost of construction for the ELT is not available at the moment; however, ESO has previously estimated a total cost of 1 billion euros.

"The leap between the telescopes we have and the ELT is nearly as large as the leap between Galileo's naked eye and his telescope", de Zeeuw said.

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