SCOTTISH scientists working on the construction of the world’s largest telescope last night welcomed the UK government’s announcement that it is investing £88 million in the project.
The funding will place the team based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh at the forefront of the construction of the telescope, which will be 16 times sharper than the Hubble and could be used to search for life on other planets.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be built in Chile and is expected to be operational by 2023. Professor Colin Cunningham, who leads the UK E-ELT project office and is based at the UK ATC in Edinburgh, said: “UK teams of scientists and engineers have built strong positions over the last few years to enable them to make major contributions to the instruments, telescope engineering and optical systems.
“This will culminate in UK astronomers having the opportunity to make breakthrough discoveries in exoplanet research and in understanding the origins and evolution of galaxies.”
The E-ELT mirror will be 39 metres in diameter and will collect 15 times more light than any existing telescope. “It is so much bigger than anything else we’ve ever done,” said Cunningham.
“We think we will be able to measure the gases in the atmospheres, which would be really exciting because if there were any signs of oxygen or methane or things that might be used by life, then it could allow us to see if there were chances for other life to exist.”
The government funding will also ensure that British-based scientists and engineers are heavily involved in the construction and operation of the telescope and its instruments. Minister for universities and science David Willetts said: “This significant investment reaffirms the government’s commitment to cutting-edge science.
“It will ensure the UK plays a leading role in a groundbreaking international project and our world-class research base has access to the latest equipment.
“Not only will this new telescope considerably increase knowledge of the universe, its construction will drive growth and innovation for UK industry.”
The telescope will be positioned in the Atacama desert in Chile when it is completed, seen as one of the best places to view space from earth because of its high elevation and clear skies.