Construction Begins on the Next Super Telescope

This artist’s rendering shows the Extremely Large Telescope in operation on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile. The telescope is shown using lasers to create artificial stars high in the atmosphere. Image: ESO/E-ELT

The construction of the world’s largest telescope has begun. At a ceremony at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile, officials gathered to celebrate the first stone of the European Extremely Large Telescope’s (E-ELT) long-awaited construction. Sophisticated telescope projects like the E-ELT take many years, so we can expect another similar ceremony sometime in 2021, when the E-ELT will see first light.

The E-ELT is the ESO’s flagship observatory. It’s primary mirror will be a 39.3 meter (129 ft.) monstrosity that will observe in the visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared spectra. The construction of the site began in 2014, but this ceremony marks the beginning of the construction of the main telescope and its dome. The ceremony also marks the connection of the telescope to the electricity grid.

The Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, attended the ceremony. She was welcomed by the Director General of ESO Tim de Zeeuw, by ELT Programme Manager Roberto Tamai, and by other officials from the ESO. Staff from the La Silla Paranal Observatory, and numerous engineers and technicians—as well as numerous representatives from Chilean government and industry—also attended the ceremony.

“With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here.” – President of the Republic of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria

In her speech, the President spoke in favor of the E-ELT, and in support of science and cooperation. “With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here: it is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation.”

At the ceremony, a time capsule from ESO was sealed into place. The capsule is a hexagon shaped, one-fifth scale model of the E-ELT containing a poster made of photographs of current ESO staff, and a copy of the book detailing the E-ELT’s science goals.

The first stone ceremony is definitely an important milestone for this Super Telescope, but it’s just one of the milestones reached by the E-ELT in the past two weeks.

The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast. At 4.2 meters in diameter, it is the largest secondary mirror ever used on an an optical telescope. Image: ESO/Schott.
The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast. At 4.2 meters in diameter, it is the largest secondary mirror ever used on an an optical telescope. Image: ESO/Schott.

The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast, and the ESO has announced that the contracts for the primary mirror have now been signed. The primary mirror segment blanks, all 798 of them, will be made by the Germany company SCHOTT. Once produced, they will be polished by the French company Safran Reosc. Safran Reosc will also mount and test the mirror segments.

“This has been an extraordinary two weeks!” – Tim de Zeeuw, European Southern Observatory’s Director General

Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s Director General, is clearly excited about the progress being made on the E-ELT. At the contract signing, de Zeeuw said, “This has been an extraordinary two weeks! We saw the casting of the ELT’s secondary mirror and then, last Friday, we were privileged to have the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, attend the first stone ceremony of the ELT. And now two world-leading European companies are starting work on the telescope’s enormous main mirror, perhaps the biggest challenge of all.”

This artist's rendering shows the huge segmented primary mirror of the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Contracts for the manufacture of the mirror segments were signed on 30 May 2017. Image: ESO/L. Calcada
This artist’s rendering shows the huge segmented primary mirror of the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Contracts for the manufacture of the mirror segments were signed on 30 May 2017. Image: ESO/L. Calcada

It’s taken an enormous amount of work to get to the construction stage of the world’s largest telescope. Scientist’s, engineers, and technicians have been working for years to get this far. But without the contribution of Chile, none of it would happen. Chile is the world’s astronomy capital, and they continue working with the ESO and other nations to drive scientific discovery forward.

The E-ELT has three broad-based science objectives. It will:

  • Probe Earth-like exoplanets for signs of life
  • Study the nature of dark energy and dark matter
  • Observe the Universe’s early stages to understand our origins and the origin of galaxies and solar systems

Along the way, it will no doubt raise new questions that we can’t even imagine yet.

Further Reading:

Rise of the Super Telescopes: Why We Build Them

This illustration shows what the Giant Magellan Telescope will look like when it comes online. The fifth of its seven mirror segments is being cast now. Each of the segments is a 20 ton piece of glass. Image: Giant Magellan

One night 400 years ago, Galileo pointed his 2 inch telescope at Jupiter and spotted 3 of its moons. On subsequent nights, he spotted another, and saw one of the moons disappear behind Jupiter. With those simple observations, he propelled human understanding onto a path it still travels.

Galileo’s observations set off a revolution in astronomy. Prior to his observations of Jupiter’s moons, the prevailing belief was that the entire Universe rotated around the Earth, which lay at the center of everything. That’s a delightfully childish viewpoint, in retrospect, but it was dogma at the time.

Until Galileo’s telescope, this Earth-centric viewpoint, called Aristotelian cosmology, made sense. To all appearances, we were at the center of the action. Which just goes to show you how wrong we can be.

But once it became clear that Jupiter had other bodies orbiting it, our cherished position at the center of the Universe was doomed.

Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans - http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543
Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans – http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543

Galileo’s observations were an enormous challenge to our understanding of ourselves at the time, and to the authorities at the time. He was forced to recant what he had seen, and he was put under house arrest. But he never really backed down from the observations he made with his 2 inch telescope. How could he?

Now, of course, there isn’t so much hostility towards people with telescopes. As time went on, larger and more powerful telescopes were built, and we’ve gotten used to our understanding going through tumultuous changes. We expect it, even anticipate it.

In our current times, Super Telescopes rule the day, and their sizes are measured in meters, not inches. And when new observations challenge our understanding of things, we cluster around out of curiosity, and try to work our way through it. We don’t condemn the results and order scientists to keep quiet.

The first of the Super Telescopes, as far as most of us are concerned, is the Hubble Space Telescope. From its perch in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Hubble has changed our understanding of the Universe on numerous fronts. With its cameras, and the steady stream of mesmerizing images those cameras deliver, a whole generation of people have been exposed to the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX - http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254
The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX – http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254

Hubble has gazed at everything, from our close companion the Moon, all the way to galaxies billions of light years away. It’s spotted a comet breaking apart and crashing into Jupiter, dust storms on Mars, and regions of energetic star-birth in other galaxies. But Hubble’s time may be coming to an end soon, and other Super Telescopes are on the way.

Nowadays, Super Telescopes are expensive megaprojects, often involving several nations. They’re built to pursue specific lines of inquiry, such as:

  • What is the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? How are they distributed in the Universe and what role do they play?
  • Are there other planets like Earth, and solar systems like ours? Are there other habitable worlds?
  • Are we alone or is there other life somewhere?
  • How do planets, solar systems, and galaxies form and evolve?

Some of the Super Telescopes will be on Earth, some will be in space. Some have enormous mirrors made up of individual, computer-controlled segments. The Thirty Meter Telescope has almost 500 of these segments, while the European Extremely Large Telescope has almost 800 of them. Following a different design, the Giant Magellan Telescope has only seven segments, but each one is over 8 meters in diameter, and each one weighs in at a whopping 20 tons of glass each.

This artistic bird's-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.
This artistic bird’s-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.

Some of the Super Telescopes see in UV or Infrared, while others can see in visible light. Some see in several spectrums. The most futuristic of them all, the Large Ultra-Violet, Optical, and Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), will be a massive space telescope situated a million-and-a-half kilometers away, with a 16 meter segmented mirror that dwarfs that of the Hubble, at a mere 2.4 meters.

Some of the Super Telescopes will discern the finest distant details, while another, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, will complete a ten-year survey of the entire available sky, repeatedly imaging the same area of sky over and over. The result will be a living, dynamic map of the sky showing change over time. That living map will be available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the 'scope's 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation
A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the ‘scope’s 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation

We’re in for exciting times when it comes to our understanding of the cosmos. We’ll be able to watch planets forming around young stars, glimpse the earliest ages of the Universe, and peer into the atmospheres of distant exoplanets looking for signs of life. We may even finally crack the code of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and understand their role in the Universe.

Along the way there will be surprises, of course. There always are, and it’s the unanticipated discoveries and observations that fuel our sense of intellectual adventure.

The Super Telescopes are technological masterpieces. They couldn’t be built without the level of technology we have now, and in fact, the development of Super Telescopes help drives our technology forward.

But they all have their roots in Galileo and his simple act of observing with a 2-inch telescope. That, and the curiosity about nature that inspired him.

The Rise of the Super Telescopes Series:

Rise of the Super Telescopes: The European Extremely Large Telescope

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:

The European Extremely Large Telescope

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is an enormous ‘scope being built by the European Southern Observatory. It’s under construction right now in the high-altitude Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The ESO, with its partners, has built some of the largest and most technically advanced telescopes in the world, like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT.) But with a 39 meter primary mirror, the E-ELT will dwarf the other telescopes in the ESO’s fleet.

As Dr Michele Cirasuolo, Programme Scientist for the ELT told Universe Today, “The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is the flagship project of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and when completed in 2024 will be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world. It represents the next step forward and it will complement the research done with the GMT (Giant Magellan Telescope) and other large telescopes being built.”

This artist’s rendering of the E-ELT shows the 39 meter segmented mirror at the heart of the scope. ESO/L. Calçada/ACe Consortium

The E-ELT is the successor to the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL), which was the ESO backed away from due to its €1.5 billion price tag. Instead, the ESO focussed on the E-ELT. The site for the E-ELT was selected in 2010, and over the next couple years the design was finalized.

Like other telescopes—including the Keck Telescope—the E-ELT’s primary mirror will be made up of individually manufactured hexagonal segments; 798 of them. The primary mirror will be fitted with edge sensors to ensure that each segment of the mirror is corrected in relation to its neighbours as the scope is aimed or moved, or as it is disturbed by temperature changes, wind, or vibrations.

The E-ELT is actually a 5 mirror system. Along with the enormous primary mirror, and the secondary mirror, there are three other mirrors. An unusual aspect of the E-ELT’s design is its tertiary mirror. This tertiary mirror will give the E-ELT better image quality over a larger field of view than a primary and secondary mirror can.

The ‘scope also has two other mirrors which provide adaptive optics and image stabilization, as well as allowing more large science instruments to be mounted to the ‘scope simultaneously.

This diagram shows the novel 5-mirror optical system of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Before reaching the science instruments the light is first reflected from the telescope’s giant concave 39-metre segmented primary mirror (M1), it then bounces off two further 4-metre-class mirrors, one convex (M2) and one concave (M3). The final two mirrors (M4 and M5) form a built-in adaptive optics system to allow extremely sharp images to be formed at the final focal plane. Image By ESO – https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1704a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55268266

The Science: What Will the E-ELT Study?

The E-ELT is designed for an ambitious science agenda. One of the most exciting aspects of the E-ELT is its potential to capture images of extra-solar planets. The 39 meter mirror will not only collect more light from distant, faint objects, but will provide an increase in angular resolution. This means that the telescope will be capable of distinguishing objects that are close together.

As Dr. Cirasuolo explains, “This will allow the ELT to image exoplanets nearer to the star they are orbiting. We aim to probe planets in the so called habitable zone (where liquid water could exist on their surfaces) and take spectra to analyse the composition of their atmospheres.”

The E-ELT has other goals as well. It aims to probe the formation and evolution of planetary systems, and to detect water and organic molecules in protoplanetary disks around stars as they form. It will look at some of the most distant objects possible—the first stars, galaxies, and black holes—to try to understand the relationships between them.

The telescope is also designed to study the first galaxies, and to chart their evolution over time. As if this list of science goals isn’t impressive enough, the E-ELT holds out the hope of directly measuring the acceleration in the expansion of the Universe.

This video explains the design of the E-ELT and some of its science goals.

These are all fascinating goals, but for many of us the most compelling question we face is “Are We Alone?” Dr. Cirasuolo feels the same. As he told Universe Today, “The ultimate goal is finding signs of life. Certainly the next generation of telescopes will provide a huge leap forward in our understanding of extra solar planets and for the search for life in the Universe.”

The E-ELT won’t be working alone. Other Super Telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and even the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, will all be working in conjunction to expand the frontier of knowledge.

It may be a very long time, if ever, before we find life somewhere else in the Universe. But by expanding our knowledge of exo-planets, the E-ELT is going to be a huge part of the ongoing effort. A few years ago, we weren’t even certain that we would find many planets around other stars. Now the discovery of exoplanets is almost commonplace. If the E-ELT lives up to its promise, then capturing actual images of exoplanets may become commonplace as well.

The Milky Way’s New Neighbor May Tell Us Things About the Universe

As part of the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter, the Milky Way has no shortage of neighbors. However, refinements made in the field of astronomy in recent years are leading to the observation of neighbors that were previously unseen. This, in turn, is changing our view of the local universe to one where things are a lot more crowded.

For instance, scientists working out of the Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected dwarf galaxy that exists 7 million light years away. The discovery of this galaxy, named KKs3, and those like it is an exciting prospect for scientists, since they can tell us much about how stars are born in our universe.

The Russian team, led by Prof Igor Karachentsev of the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), used the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to locate KKs3 in the southern sky near the constellation of Hydrus. The discovery occurred back in August 2014, when they finalized their observations a series of stars that have only one ten-thousandth the mass of the Milky Way.

Such dwarf galaxies are far more difficult to detect than others due to a number of distinct characteristics. KKs3 is what is known as a dwarf spheroid (or dSph) galaxy, a type that has no spiral arms like the Milky Way and also suffers from an absence of raw materials (like dust and gas). Since they lack the materials to form new stars, they are generally composed of older, fainter stars.

Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS/Hubble
Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS

In addition, these galaxies are typically found in close proximity to much larger galaxies, like Andromeda, which appear to have gobbled up their gas and dust long ago. Being faint in nature, and so close to far more luminous objects, is what makes them so tough to spot by direct observation.

Team member Prof Dimitry Makarov, also of the Special Astrophysical Observatory, described the process: “Finding objects like Kks3 is painstaking work, even with observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. But with persistence, we’re slowly building up a map of our local neighborhood, which turns out to be less empty than we thought. It may be that are a huge number of dwarf spheroidal galaxies out there, something that would have profound consequences for our ideas about the evolution of the cosmos.”

Painstaking is no exaggeration. Since they are devoid of materials like clouds of gas and dust fields, scientists are forced to spot these galaxies by identifying individual stars. Because of this, only one other isolated dwarf spheroidal has been found in the Local Group: a dSph known as KKR 25, which was also discovered by the Russian research team back in 1999.

But despite the challenges of spotting them, astronomers are eager to find more examples of dSph galaxies. As it stands, it is believed that these isolated spheroids must have been born out of a period of rapid star formation, before the galaxies were stripped of their dust and gas or used them all up.

Studying more of these galaxies can therefore tell us much about the process star formation in our universe. The Russian team expects that the task will become easier in the coming years as the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope begin service.

Much like the Spitzer Space Telescope, these next-generation telescopes are optimized for infrared detection and will therefore prove very useful in picking out faint stars. This, in turn, will also give us a more complete understanding of our universe and all that it holds.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

Gorgeous Telescope Timelapse Makes You Feel Like You’re Standing In Chile

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

As the chill of winter settles into the northern hemisphere, fantasies of down-south travel pervade a lot of people’s dreams. Well, here’s a virtual journey to warm climes for astronomy buffs: a beautiful, music-filled timelapse of several European Southern Observatory telescopes gazing at the heavens in Chile.

Uploaded in 2011 (but promoted this morning on ESO’s Twitter feed), the timelapse was taken by astrophotographers Stéphane Guisard (also an ESO engineer) and José Francisco Salgado (who is also an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.) Telescopes include:

We’ve covered their work before on Universe Today. In 2009, Guisard  participated in GigaGalaxy Zoom, which produced a 360-degree panorama of the entire sky. He also released a 3-D view of several telescopes that same year. Also, Guisard and Salgado collaborated on another 2011 timelapse of the Very Large Telescope and nearby sites.