Coming Soon: World’s Largest Optical Telescope


The world’s largest optical/infrared telescope has been given the initial go-ahead to be built. Called the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) this long-proposed new ground-based telescope will have a 40-meter main mirror and observe the universe in visible and infrared light, making direct images of exoplanets, perhaps find Earth-sized and even Earth-like worlds, and study the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

“This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project,” said the ESO Director General, Tim de Zeeuw.

At a meeting in Garching, France this week, the ESO (European Southern Observatory) Council approved the E-ELT program, with 6 out of 10 countries giving firm approval and four gave “ad referendum” approval, meaning that they needed an official green light from their governments. With that approval, officials are hopeful the E-ELT could start operations by the early 2020’s.

The new super-large eye on the sky will be built at Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

The cost is expected to be $1.35 billion USD (1.083-billion-euro)

“World-leading projects of this kind inspire us all and are hugely effective in bringing young people into careers in science and technology,” said David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

This type of telescope has been on the priority list for astronomy by scientists around the world.

The E-ELT will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye, eight million times more than Galileo’s telescope which saw the four biggest moons of Jupiter four centuries ago, and 26 times more than a single VLT telescope.

“The E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the ‘habitable zones’ where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy,” the ESO said.

ESO said that early contracts for the project have already been placed. Shortly before the Council meeting, a contract was signed to begin a detailed design study for the very challenging M4 adaptive mirror of the telescope. This is one of the longest lead-time items in the whole E-ELT program, and an early start was essential.

Detailed design work for the route of the road to the summit of Cerro Armazones, where the E-ELT will be sited, is also in progress and some of the civil works are expected to begin this year. These include preparation of the access road to the summit of Cerro Armazones as well as the leveling of the summit itself.

Source: ESO

20 Replies to “Coming Soon: World’s Largest Optical Telescope”

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  2. Made of win! Though I’m partial to the astrobiology of course, we need something like that now.

  3. How long before someone complains that this is a waste of money in a time of European ‘austerity’?

    1. It is not a waste really. All of this austerity stuff is nonsense anyway. It is austerity for the average person, but the big guys keep theirs. If anything this is money being used to actually accomplish something and to build something extraordinary.


      1. I hope this E-ELT is powerful enough to peer into the surface of Pluto or Enceladus.

      2. Since the E-ELT collects optical light it can no more look into the interiors of planets than one can see through a wall with one’s own eye.

  4. I have a question,what is the maximum theoretical limit to any telescope’s magnification and resolution? In other words, can a telescope be able to take images of an exoplanet 100 light years away at the same detail as our Geo- Earth satellite pictures?

    1. I think that the actual resolution will depend on the effectiveness of the atmospheric correction gizmos that this monster will use. The thing that gets me is how this instrument will deal with the glare from the star that hides planets from many of the the currently active scopes.

      1. One way to deal with the glare from the central star is to use ‘destructive interference’.

        Basically, the AO-optics are made to focus the light from the mirror in such a way that the central star has the light diminished by out of phase light, while the planet (wich is a small angular distance away) is significantly less diminished. There are still limits to what can be accomplished, but the star can be masked out a factor of thousands or more using this technique.

    2. To read more about the relationship between the telescope’s magnification/resolution and its size, read Ethis than’s great blog post:
      So, I guess the answer to your question is basically, how big a telescope can we build? If we could use them together, connecting them like radio dishes, then I guess the **theoretical** limit is the diameter of the Earth for the Earth-bound ones, or, in some distant future, even greater if they are in orbit and still use interferometry.

  5. Two large telescopes should be working a few years before this one. James Webb (if they stop delaying it) in 2018, and the Thirty Meter Telescope (est. 2018). Would provide comparable science and should be awesome.

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  6. Good on the European Union continue be the new leaders in the forefront of new astronomical hardware and associated technologies. If Americans were just nice to these guys, they might let them play with the new telescope when it is finished!

    Please. Support these European guys instead of the usual commentators here making off the story direction slights or just the usual sickening xenophobic patriotic flag-waving. 🙁

  7. Ha ha, please treat this as a bit of fun.

    Suggestions for new telescope names:
    the European Really Enormous Telescope
    The European Absolutely Humungous Telescope
    The Really, Really, Really Bigger Telescope
    The Mine’s Bigger Than Yours Telescope
    The Gosh, I Can’t Imagine a Bigger Telescope
    The Gee We Made it Even Bigger Than Last Year’s Telescope

    What is it with these slightly bashful, modest, embarrassed names for telescopes. Why not just give them names like Super, Great, Ultra-High Mag, or something like that. 🙂

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