42-meter giant will probe the universe

December 12, 2006

The future of European astronomy is poised to enter a new era of discovery with the decision announced today by ESO's governing body to proceed with detailed studies for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). This three year study, with a budget of 57 million euro, will prepare the way for construction of the world's largest optical/infrared telescope that will revolutionise ground-based astronomy. Astronomers from the UK have played crucial roles in reaching this decision.

The E-ELT will be more than hundred times more sensitive than the present-day largest optical telescopes, such as the 10-m Keck telescopes or the 8.2-m VLT telescopes and will answer some of the biggest questions about the Universe in which we live.

Professor Gerry Gilmore, University of Cambridge anticipates tremendous new science being made possible saying "The E-ELT is critical to allow the next big advance in understanding our mysterious Universe. We will search for planets similar to the Earth around other stars, discover the nature of matter by mapping the distribution and properties of the dark matter, which is the matter of which Nature is made, not the rather unimportant amount of stuff of which we are made, and investigate the future of the Universe - is time infinite" - by examining the Dark energy which seems to control the fate of space-time."

The present concept, estimated to cost around 800 million euro, features as a baseline a 42-m diameter segmented mirror telescope housed in an 80-m diameter rotating dome. It incorporates a large internal mirror able to distort its own shape a thousand times per second. This 'Adaptive Optics' system will help to provide robust telescope operation even in case of significant wind turbulence and will largely overcome the fuzziness of stellar images due to atmospheric turbulence.

Professor Roger Davies, University of Oxford chairs ESO's ELT Standing Review Committee and serves on PPARC's Council. He said "The telescope design incorporates the crucial image sharpening technology in an innovative way that will give the 42m the full theoretical capability an instrument of that size can achieve. It will provide an unprecedented clear view of the distant universe enabling us to probe the origins of planets, stars and galaxies"

"The decision by the ESO Council to go ahead with the design study for a European Extremely Large Telescope is a very exciting one for European astronomy," said Professor Richard Wade, President of the ESO Council and Deputy CEO of the UK's science funding agency, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

"At the end of the three year Final Design Study, we will know exactly how everything is going to be built including a detailed costing," said Catherine Cesarsky, ESO's Director General. "We then hope to start construction and have it ready by 2017, when we can install instruments and use it!"

Dr Isobel Hook of Oxford University led the team developing the science case for an E-ELT. "There are a lot of big questions in astronomy that we can't answer with the current generation of telescopes. 42 may not quite be the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, but it will tell us a great deal more than we know now."

For the past year, ESO has been working together with European astronomers to define the new giant telescope needed by the end of the next decade. This fast pace has also been possible thanks to early conceptual studies (such as the ESO OWL and the EURO-50 studies), complemented by a large mobilisation of European Institutes and high-tech Industries to develop critical enabling technologies in the framework of the so-called ELT Design Study, with ESO and the European Commission as the main funders, as well as with national contributions.

Professor Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge chaired the design study leading up to this decision "Constructing an E-ELT is extremely challenging - as you scale up a telescope the technical difficulties become much more significant. Scientists and industry will both have crucial parts to play in ensuring that the E-ELT is viable and the UK community will be looking to take leading roles in design and construction of the telescope and its instruments as well as in the eventual scientific work."

The primary 42-m diameter mirror is composed of 906 hexagonal segments, each 1.45 m in size, while the secondary mirror is as large as 6 m in diameter. In order to overcome the fuzziness of stellar images due to atmospheric turbulence the telescope needs to incorporate adaptive mirrors into its optics. A tertiary mirror, 4.2 m in diameter, relays the light to the adaptive optics system, composed of two mirrors: a 2.5-m mirror supported by 5000 or more actuators able to distort its own shape a thousand times per second, and one 2.7 m in diameter that allows for the final image corrections. This five mirror approach results in an exceptional image quality, with no significant aberrations in the field of view.

The site of the E-ELT is not yet fixed as studies are still undergoing with a plan to make a decision by 2008.

"The E-ELT will provide European astronomers with access to a facility that will allow them to do very exciting research projects including looking for Earth-like planets around other stars, a real quest for astronomers," said Richard Wade.

"This is really the beginning of a new era for optical and infrared astronomy," said Catherine Cesarsky.

Extremely Large Telescopes are considered world-wide as one of the highest priorities in ground-based astronomy. They will vastly advance astrophysical knowledge allowing detailed studies of, among others, planets around other stars, the first objects in the Universe, super-massive Black Holes, and the nature and distribution of the Dark Matter and Dark Energy which dominate the Universe. The European Extremely Large Telescope project will maintain and reinforce Europe's position at the forefront of astrophysical research, gained in large part at the turn of the Century through the ESO Very Large Telescope facility.
Notes for Editors

Professor Gerry Gilmore FInstP ScD
Institute of Astronomy
Cambridge University
Tel +44 (0)1223 337506
Mob +44 (0)771 2774522
email: gil@ast.cam.ac.uk

Professor Roger Davies
University of Oxford
Tel +44 (0) 1865 273305
Mobile: +44 (0)7808-727080

Dr Isobel Hook
University of Oxford
Tel +44 (0)1865 283107
Mob +44 (0)7739-174455

Dr. Henri Boffin
ESO Press Officer/Outreach Scientist
Phone: +49 89 3200 6222

Roberto Gilmozzi
E-ELT Principal Investigator
ESO, Garching, Germany
Phone: +49 89 3200 6667
Email: rgilmozz@eso.org

Broadcast material
Broadcast quality material available at http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2006/vid-46-06.html

Image available from http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2006/phot-46-06.html Birdseye view of the elaborate 3-dimensional model of the European Extremely Large Telescope developed to determine expected performance during observing conditions. With a 42-m diameter primary mirror, the present baseline, its total rotating mass is 5,500 tons. The two platforms on each side of the structure hold large instruments. Credit ESO.

More information
The ESO Council represents 11 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; while Spain is expected to become a full member before the end of this year), making for most of the astronomical investment capabilities of Europe. Designing, producing, installing and continuously upgrading such a facility is a huge undertaking over many decades. The European ELT basic reference design presented last week in Marseille for community feedback has been conducted within a close partnership with both national Agencies and their scientific Institutes and high-tech industrial firms. In that way, ESO has largely tapped present European knowledge and capability in all key areas: Science priorities, Adaptive Optics & Instrumentation, Telescope Design and Site Evaluation. The large Research and Development efforts conducted since the last years within our community, in particular the FP6 Opticon and ELT Design Study programs, are essential for this endeavour.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the European Organisation for Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory.

Science and Technology Facilities Council

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