E-ELT is planned to be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world: it will be tens of times more sensitive than any current ground-based optical telescope.
Oxford University scientists are taking a lead role in the instrumentation for this £922m (€1082m) project, so today’s announcement from the ESO, which included funding for the roads and the adaptive optics mirror, is welcome news – even if a final decision to build the telescope won’t be made until mid-2012.
Niranjan Thatte of Oxford University’s Department of Physics led a European consortium that designed the E-ELT's HARMONI spectrograph, one of the proposed telescope's key instruments, he told me back in October:
‘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.’
Yesterday, prior to the announcement, Isobel Hook of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, who chairs the E-ELT science working group, told the Today programme's Tom Feilden:
'The main improvement with this telescope over anything that's gone before is its size. The huge area allows you to collect light from much fainter more distant objects, while the diameter is what gives you the superb resolution - the sharpness of the images.'
With events at the LHC likely to dominate the headlines next week and next year, it’s worth considering just how much of an advance astronomy’s biggest science project could be:
It’s still a long road ahead for the E-ELT but, if approved, construction could start next year, with the telescope being operational early in the next decade.