The Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) today approved construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)—which would be by far the biggest optical/infrared telescope in history.
(Artist rendition of the E-ELT.Credit:European Southern Observatory)
“Building huge telescopes is hard. Funding them is even harder, it seems.But the project still faces obstacles, as several nations still need to confirm their contributions to the €1.1 billion ($1.35 billion) instrument.”
“At its previous meeting in December 2011, the ESO Council approved preparatory work on the project, including the construction of a road to the summit of Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, where the telescope will be located. But today’s vote was the first official approval of the full E-ELT program. In a press release, ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw said, ‘This is … a great day for ESO.’”
“With a segmented primary mirror measuring 39.3 meters across, the E-ELT will collect more starlight than all existing professional telescopes combined and reveal 16 times more detail than the Hubble Space Telescope. Equipped with a suite of cameras, spectrographs and other instruments, the telescope is expected to detectthe very first galaxies in the early universe; study the birth, evolution, and death of stars and planets; and directly image habitable planets orbiting other stars. It could be up and running in the early 2020s.”
“But here’s the small print: Of ESO’s 14 member states, just six (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland) voted to officially commit to the project, which will require them to increase their annual membership payments by 2%. Four countries—Denmark, France, Portugal, and Spain—’are not yet in a position to commit and need more time, so they abstained from voting,’ says ESO spokesperson Lars Lindberg Christensen. The representatives of the remaining four member states—Belgium, Finland, Italy, and the United Kingdom—voted yes, but their support still needs to be confirmed by their ministries or governments.”
“Despite the uncertainty, the E-ELT is in a better financial position than its two main competitors, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope ’The question is no longer whether the E-ELT will start or not, but now it is just a question of the timescale for the start of the biggest contracts,’ says Lindberg Christensen.”
(It is likely that Europe will win the race to build the first 30-meter-class telescope, the E-ELT. Their funding is essentially in the bank now, whereas the American competition is (1) only partially funded and (2) split between two competing projects. Even though some construction work is underway on the American projects, both suffered a major blow at the start of the year when the National Science Foundation declined to provide significant funding for either project before 2020. Some indications are that the organizations involved will consider foregoing public funding altogether, but fundraising US $1 billion isn’t easy. I think it’s increasingly likely that neither American facility will get built unless the competing organizations set aside their differences and merge their operations. -JCB)
Europe shipped one of its big contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Tuesday.
(Checked baggage: Miri went out on a standard passenger flight. Credit: BBC/Nick Morrish/British Airways)
“TheMid Infra-Red Instrument (Miri)was flown out of London Heathrow on a British Airways jet, bound for Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center. JWST will be the successor to Hubble, and aims to track down the very first stars to shine in the Universe. Miri has been built by a pan-European consortium led from the UK and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It will play a central role in the quest to identify that ‘first light’.”
“The 120m-euro (£95m; $150m) instrument, tucked inside its protective box, was loaded on to BA flight 217 for Washington Dulles International Airport. The reportedly smooth ride across the Atlantic took about 7.5 hours. On landing, Miri was set to be driven the relatively short distance around the US capital’s ‘Beltway’ to Goddard for an unpacking on Wednesday. NASA engineers will then integrate Miri into the telescope structure prior to further testing.”
“The main container carried the flags of all the European nations that have worked on the instrument and the signatures of its principal scientist, Prof Gillian Wright, and its project manager, John Thatcher from the Astrium space company. A message read simply, ‘First and best’.”
(Europe has a heavy involvement in the development JWST, whose entire future remains somewhat in doubt at this point. If/when it flies, Europe’s contribution will be an integral part of its success. -JCB)
Astronomy news, recent research results, and pretty pictures from the media along with context, commentary, and explanations for folks who dig this sort of thing. Written by a quasi-professional astronomer affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin.