Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Work Starts on World's Largest Ground-Based Telescope

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Work Starts on World's Largest Ground-Based Telescope

Article excerpt

Technicians blasted a Chilean mountaintop to rubble Thursday to level a perch for what will be the world's largest ground-based telescope.

Scheduled to take its first peek at the night sky in 2024, the Extremely Large Telescope will boast a main, light-gathering mirror 39 meters across - just under half the length of a football field.

The telescope's size, an ability to take the twinkle out of cosmic objects, plus superb "seeing" conditions high in Chile's Atacama Desert, will give astronomers an unprecedented look at the earliest galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away.

It will allow them to glean information about extra-solar planets in the sun's neighborhood as researchers hunt for other planets capable of hosting life. It will help reveal details about the behavior of supermassive black holes and the influence they wield over the evolution of the galaxies that host them. And it could uncover clues as to the nature and distribution of dark matter and dark energy.

The E-ELT, as the telescope project is known, is one of three extremely large telescopes in various stages of progress. It is overseen by the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Garching, Germany.

The Giant Magellan Telescope project cleared its Chilean mountaintop two years ago, passed its final design reviews in February and is in a position to begin construction. And in April, the Thirty Meter Telescope project survived a legal challenge to the process for siting its eye on the sky. The telescope will join other observatories atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea.

The science case for these behemoths as been strong all along, knowing that the current generation of large telescopes would bump up against its observational limits, according to Robert Kirshner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Giant Magellan Telescope's board of directors.

This class of 30-meter to 40-meter telescopes has about 100 times the light-gathering ability of the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. And because all are designed to use adaptive optics to remove the image-distorting effects of the atmosphere, they will produce images at least 10 times sharper than Hubble's, Dr. Kirshner says.

"We knew they would be fantastic for studying the distant galaxies and tracing cosmic evolution" in conjunction with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, he says of these new ground-based telescopes.

But during what he dubs "the larval stage" of these projects, an unanticipated field virtually exploded with the discovery of more than 1,000 extrasolar planets. Many of these objects are "crying out for an investigation of their properties," Kirshner says, a task for which "the extremely large telescopes will be superb."

Indeed, in addition to their own discoveries, these telescopic monsters will become astronomy's workhorses as they conduct systematic studies of objects uncovered by space-based observatories such as NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and James Webb Space Telescopes. …

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