Chile blasts mountaintop; makes room for world’s largest telescope

The Cerro Armazones mountain, situated in Chile’s Atacama desert, used to be 9,800 feet tall. Now it’s just a little shorter, thanks to a June…
Chile blasts mountaintop; makes room for world’s largest telescope

This artist’s rendition shows what the European-Extremely Large Telescope will look like in Chile’s Atacama Desert. (Photo: ESO)

The Cerro Armazones mountain, situated in Chile’s Atacama desert, used to be 9,800 feet tall. Now it’s just a little shorter, thanks to a June 19th blast that cleared space for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The new “eye on the sky” will be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope, allowing scientists to look further into space than ever before. Now that a spot atop Cerro Armazones has been cleared, construction on E-ELT is expected to begin promptly. The telescope will be completed in less than 10 years.

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A better view of the universe

According to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the organization behind the E-ELT, the telescope’s size will allow scientists to “tackle some of the biggest scientific challenges of our time.” Dr. Aprajita Verma, the deputy project scientist on the telescope’s UK team, noted that the device will “be so powerful that it will collect enough light to look to the observable limit of the Universe—soon after the Big Bang when the first stars and galaxies formed…We’ll be able to see when the Universe was switched on.”

Specifically, scientists hope to get a more detailed view of exoplanets, which lie outside of our Solar System, as well as supermassive black holes and the dark matter that makes up a significant portion of the universe. Of course, in that search of the far reaches of the sky, researchers will also be attempting to find Earth-like planets that might play host to alien life, according to the ESO.

A telescope of unprecedented scale

When it comes to telescopes, bigger really is better. The E-ELT’s size blows away the world’s current largest telescope, the aptly named Very Large Telescope, which also sits in the Atacama Desert.

Installing the E-ELT mirror will be the most difficult part of the construction: that primary mirror is slated to be 39 meters wide (130 feet). By comparison, the ESO lists the diameter of the Very Large Telescope’s main mirror as 8.2 meters.

Chile's Atacama desert is full of mountains.

A mountaintop in the Atacama Desert in Chile was blasted to make room for the telescope. (Shutterstock)

To construct a mirror of such increased size, builders will use 798 smaller hexagonal mirrors as well as 2,500 tons of steel rigging in order to secure those pieces. That size will allow the new telescope to “capture 15 times more light than any other optical telescope.”

The detail in the E-ELT’s images will also be 16 times sharper than the detail in Hubble Space Telescope images.

Atacama’s Viewing Conditions

Given that the Very Large Telescope and now the European Extremely Large Telescope—in addition to several of the other largest telescopes in the world— are situated in Chile’s Atacama desert, it’s clear that the area holds a certain allure for astrophysicists.

That’s because of the near-cloudless weather that graces the desert on most days: it’s rare to see a cloud in the sky. The Atacama desert is the world’s driest, so there’s little water vapor to get in the way of viewing.

Additionally, by building the E-ELT on top of the Cerro Armazones mountain, scientists will avoid some of the air turbulence that affects observatories at lower altitudes, according to The Guardian. Though the project won’t be finished until roughly 2023, the wait may very well be worth it: just imagine what’s waiting out there to be found!

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