The project was approved on Thursday December 4 and is scheduled to be completed by 2024 at a cost of $1.3 billion.
The European Extremely Large Telescope will be constructed in Chile’s Atacama Desert with the aim of helping to find planets in other solar systems. The project will be run by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an organization which counts 15 European and South American nations as members.
The project was first mooted in 2006, and was given the green light in 2012 on the condition that 90% of the necessary funding be provided by ESO member nations. On Wednesday the ESO Council authorized the beginning of construction work after that goal was met.
A telescope of groundbreaking proportions
The telescope’s 128-foot wide composite mirror is around 4 times larger than any current telescope, and will be able to collect approximately 100 million times more light than the human eye. The mountain-top location in the Chilean desert is ideal because it means that sharper images of the sky can be collected due to the relatively thin, dry air.
The main aim is to search for new planets in other solar systems, particularly those of a similar size to Earth which could host other forms of life. Up to this point existing telescopes have helped scientists discover over 1,000 exoplanets, but they are generally gas giants which, although easier to spot, are unlikely to contain life.
“We need big telescopes like this because Earth-like planets are smaller, and have relatively thin atmospheres — so we need to take in a lot of light to analyze them and search for potential signatures of life,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, Director of the Institute for Pale Blue Dots at Cornell University, a newly formed organization which hopes to find signs of life in space.
Furthering our knowledge of space
Another stated aim of the project is to further our understanding of the formation of our solar system through the study of distant star systems, as well as the evolution of more distant galaxies over time.
Stargazers will be hoping for the discovery of Earth-like planets, but even if none are discovered the telescope promises to improve our knowledge. Once completed the telescope will allow us to see further into space than ever before, and I for one cannot wait to find out if anything else is out there. Only a decade to wait.