PARIS (AFP) - A plan to build the world’s most powerful optical telescope, able to scour the heavens for planets that could sustain life, has cleared an important hurdle, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said.
The 1.083-billion-euro ($1.35-billion) scheme entails building a telescope with a massive light-catching mirror 39.3 metres (127 feet) wide, several times the size of the biggest optical telescopes today.
It will be sited on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s existing Paranal Observatory, where the extremely arid conditions and high altitude — 3,060 metres (9,945 feet) — offer excellent viewing of the skies.
Paranal already hosts the Very Large Telescope (VLT), comprising four highly advanced telescopes each with mirrors of 8.2 metres (26.65 feet) across.
“This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project,” ESO’s director general, Tim de Zeeuw, said after the council meeting in Garching, Germany, on Monday. If all goes well, the E-ELT will start operations about a decade from now, becoming one of the astronomical assets of the 21st century alongside a vast radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) set to be built in South Africa and Australia. Mirror size in a telescope determines how much light can be snared. A bigger mirror means more distant and smaller stars can be observed.