The world’s largest ground based European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) construction has started in Chile. The technicians blasted a mountain top in Chile to flatten the surface where the Extremely Large Telescope will be grounded.

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.

Once built, the 128-foot main mirror will make it the “largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world,” according to the ESO. About 300,000 metric tons of earth will have to be moved after the explosion to create a flat base for the equipment.

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.

The E-ELT will search for extrasolar planets — planets orbiting other stars. This will include not only the discovery of planets down to Earth-like masses through indirect measurements of the wobbling motion of stars perturbed by the planets that orbit them, but also the direct imaging of larger planets and possibly even the characterization of their atmospheres. The telescope will attempt to image Earthlike exoplanets, which may be possible.

The telescope’s “eye” will be 39.3 meters in diameter and will gather 15 times more light than the largest optical telescopes operating at the time of its development. The primary mirror for the 39.3 meter design will be composed of 798 hexagonal segments, each 1.45 meters across but only 50 mm thick.

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.

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The E-ELT is managed by the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Garching, Germany. The overwhelmingly large telescope would cost over $2 billion in construction.

The E-ELT is designed to make detailed studies of the first galaxies and to follow their evolution through cosmic time.

“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.”

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