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An impression of the E-ELT observatory operating under Chile s pristine skies. Credit: ESO An impression of the E-ELT observatory operating under Chile's pristine skies. Credit: ESO

UK funding boost for world's biggest optical telescope

Sen— Plans to build a monster telescope that will become the world's largest optical instrument have received a huge funding boost.

The British government has pledged an £88 million investment in the project that will allow UK scientists and industry to play a major role in construction and use of the telescope in Chile.

The observatory, known as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), promises to revolutionise many areas of astronomy because of its unrivalled power. It is planned to have it completed by 2023 at a cost in today's money of 1.1 billion euros.

This new eye on the sky will use an innovative five-mirror design to collect 15 times more light than the largest optical telescopes currently operating anywhere in the world.

Its primary 39.3-metre wide mirror, made up of 798 hexagonal segments, will gather more light than all the 23 major optical research telescopes greater than 4 metres in diameter added together.

It will stand on a 3,060-metre high peak in the Atacama Desert called Cerro Armazones that will have its top blown off to make room for the giant telescope. The dome will be nearly as high as the tower housing Big Ben in London and will cover an area the size of a football stadium.

The latest step forward for the E-ELT comes nearly three months after the project's member states gave it the green light at a meeting of the European Southern Observatory's ruling Council.

However, at that time ESO still awaited commitments from all the 14 member nations to fund the telescope, with just 60 per cent of funding promised. The UK's money, as a 16 per cent partner, boosts this figure towards the 90 per cent that ESO requires before construction work can begin. Most of the rest of the money will be found when Brazil's government ratifies that country's accession to ESO.

UK industry has already won £9 million worth of contracts from the E-ELT project and that figure is expected to increase as much as ten times by the time the telescope is built. The £88 million pledged includes £35 million that will be awarded within the UK for the production of instruments for the telescope.

The E-ELT will make huge strides toward our understanding of the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy and planets outside of the solar system.

UK Science Minister David Willetts said of the announcement: "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."

Cutaway of the Extremely Large Telescope

A cutaway illustration shows a preliminary design for the E-ELT. Credit: ESO

Professor Simon Morris, Deputy Head of Physics at the UK's Durham University, said: "Astonishing discoveries are made possible by the huge collecting area and fantastic detail that can be resolved by the E-ELT. Every area of astronomy, from planets around other stars, through to the first galaxies formed in the Universe will be revolutionised".

And Professor Isobel Hook, E-ELT Project Scientist at the University of Oxford, said: "The breadth of science it can do is what makes this telescope so important for so many astronomers in the UK.

"We'll be able to explore further into space and in exquisite detail, helping us understand some of the strangest and exciting phoenomena in our universe ranging from the formation and collisions of galaxies, the effects of black holes and even the possibilities for existence of life on planets elsewhere in the Universe."

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