New Tech: The World’s Largest Telescope Will Look for New Earths

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has announced that the World’s biggest telescope would be constructed in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The chosen site is just 20km from Cerro Paranal, where ESO runs its Very Large Telescope facility, four interconnected optical telescopes with primary mirrors measuring 8.2m.

This particular area of the Atacama Desert provides near-perfect observation conditions. At least 320 nights a year the sky is cloudless and the nights so dark that the Milky Way will cast your shadow. The aridity of the desert means water vapour is limited reducing interference of starlight as it passes through the atmosphere.

In addition to providing insight into black holes, galaxy formation “dark matter” and “dark energy,”
one of the major priorities of the ELT, the Extremely Large Telescope, is the prospect of zooming in on rocky planets beyind our solar system that could potentially host the conditions needed for life.

Tim De Zeeuw, ESO director general said in an interview with Public Service Review: “The light gathering power of the ELT should allow us to measure the properties of the atmospheres of some exoplanets. Today this is only possible for giant, bright planets like Jupiter. The ELT should allow us to do this for planets that are the size of the Earth, or a little bigger, and are sure to be rocky. We think that the best way to look for life is to look for planets like our Earth.”

The 42m diameter mirror – about five times the width of today’s best telescopes – means that exquisitely sharp images can be taken from very long distances away.

The Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, Martin Rees said that the E-ELT will also enable astronomers to deliver greater understanding of the history of the Universe.

“By cosmic standards, the study of planets around other stars is ‘parochial’: we can observe only within a part of our own Milky Way Galaxy,” Rees said. “But the E-ELT will contribute to our study of the most distant galaxies, probing back to a time when the universe was only around 5 percent of its present age.

“By comparing ‘snapshots’ of the universe at various distances (i.e. at various eras in the past) it will be possible to firm up our understanding of how, over a time of around 13.7 billion years, our cosmos transformed from a dense and mysterious beginning into the panorama of stars and galaxies we see around us.

“Such observations will also firm up the long-range cosmic forecast: the best guess is that the universe will continue expanding, at an accelerating rate, getting colder, darker and emptier — forever.”

ESO says that it believes the project will be operational by 2018.

Casey Kazan via http://www.publicservice.co.uk

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