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ESO to build world’s biggest eye on the sky; UK plays a key role

13 June 2012

European Southern Observatory (ESO) is to build the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world. At a meeting in Garching, Germany the ESO Council approved the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) Programme, and expects to start operations early in the next decade. The E-ELT will be a 39.3-metre segmented-mirror telescope sited on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

Early contracts for the project have already been placed. Shortly before the Council meeting, a contract was signed to begin a detailed design study for the very challenging M4 adaptive mirror, and is one of the longest lead-time items in the whole E-ELT programme. The E-ELT will collect at least 12 times more light than the current largest optical telescopes.

Detailed design work for the route of the road to the summit of Cerro Armazones, where the E-ELT will be sited, is also in progress and some of the civil works are expected to begin this year. These include preparation of the access road to the summit of Cerro Armazones as well as the levelling of the summit itself.

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to survey the skies in visible light.

The UK is playing several leading and key roles in the project. The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC’s) UK Astronomy Technology Centre is coordinating the UK contributions, in collaboration with industry and university partners.

Durham University, along with other UK universities, is playing a key role in the development of five of the instruments aboard the E-ELT. The University of Oxford and UK ATC, in collaboration with other international partners, is also leading on one of two ‘first light’ instruments, HARMONI.

Professor Simon Morris, Deputy Head of Physics, Durham University, and co-Principal Investigator for the proposed E-ELT instrument EAGLE, said: “The European Extremely Large Telescope will greatly surpass the already amazing suite of four Very Large Telescopes.

“It will have a huge light collecting area, ways of correcting for atmospheric blurring, and the ability to observe large numbers of faint, distant galaxies at once.

“This will allow UK astronomers, in collaboration with our European colleagues, to solve many current mysteries about the way our own galaxy formed. UK astronomical instrument builders are also very excited to be taking a number of leading roles in the planned cameras and spectrographs for the telescope.”

The UK is involved with several Phase A studies including HARMONI, EAGLE, OPTIMOS-EVE, CODEX, EPICS, METIS. In addition, a project called CANARY, will prototype key concepts in adaptive optics, particularly those required for the EAGLE instrument.

These projects will ultimately provide a suite of mutually-complementary instruments for observations of the faintest planets, stars, and galaxies that are well beyond the reach of existing telescopes.

Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive of STFC, said: “Our commitment to the E-ELT reflects its high priority in our science strategy, the world-leading position of the UK astronomy community, and the potential returns to UK industry.  ESO's announcement is an important step towards construction, though the final go-ahead depends of course on obtaining approval by a number of governments (including ours) to such a long term financial commitment”.

UK industry and research institutions can expect to be richly rewarded for the UK’s involvement in E-ELT. Already around €10million (£8million) has been won by the UK for work in the pre-construction phase.

Moving into construction phase, the opportunities for industrial contracts will be open to competition within the member states, to at least a value of €800million (£645million). Work done so far puts UK industry in a strong position to be successful in bidding against this, especially in the areas of optics manufacture, detectors, software and structural engineering.

Director of STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Gillian Wright, said: “The E-ELT is an enormously exciting and important project that will enable astronomers to study the universe in unprecedented detail.  The major UK involvement in the planned first light instrumentation is a result of our world leading scientific and technical capabilities. This deep involvement in the construction phase will ensure that UK scientists are at the forefront of discoveries with the new telescope.”

The UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, STFC's UK ATC and RAL Space, together with other leading international institutes and UK industry. More information on the UK role in the E-ELT can be found here

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