3 october 2011

Boost for world's largest telescope

Science

Design for European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) HARMONI spectrograph
Design for the E-ELT's Oxford-led HARMONI instrument

New STFC funding will strengthen UK involvement in the development of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) with Oxford University scientists taking a leading role.

The E-ELT is planned to be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world and will be tens of times more sensitive than any current ground-based optical telescope.

£2.1m of the £3.5m in new funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council will fund work on a spectrograph called HARMONI, one of the proposed telescope’s key instruments. HARMONI will be based on a design study carried out by a pan-European consortium led by Professor Niranjan Thatte of Oxford University’s Department of Physics.

Professor Thatte said: ‘HARMONI is an integral field spectrograph, simultaneously providing images and spectra of astrophysical objects in unprecedented detail, giving a fivefold improvement in spatial resolution over present-day telescopes. Combined with the immense light-gathering power of the E-ELT, it will enable ultra-sensitive observations of distant and nearby galaxies, super-massive black holes, young star-forming regions, extra-solar planets and other exotic objects.’

Professor Isobel Hook, the UK E-ELT Project Scientist from Oxford University’s Department of Physics, said: ‘This new financial commitment from the STFC means that UK astronomers will have access to the earliest scientific results from this revolutionary telescope - an exciting prospect that will be the culmination of many years of hard work by the instrument teams.’

This UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, and STFC's UK ATC and RAL Space, together with leading international institutes.

Professor Colin Cunningham, from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) who is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office said: ‘This funding from STFC will allow the UK to put itself in the best possible position to develop key instruments for the E-ELT with its international partners. The fact that ESO has already highly rated the early designs for these instruments is testament to the world-leading expertise of our scientists and engineers. We are looking forward to turning these designs into exciting new capabilities for the astronomy research community.’

It is expected that partners in the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be asked in December 2011 to take a decision on whether to start construction of the project.

Simulation showing improved view of Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) HARMONI instrument

Image: Simulation showing how HARMONI (right) will view a star-forming galaxy in the early universe compared to the view using ESO-VLT and its SINFONI spectrograph (left).