Groundbreaking for Europe’s Giant Telescope

The top of Cerro Armazones in Chile yielded on June 19th to a blast that paves the way for the European Extremely Large Telescope.

E-ELT groundbreaking

The future of the world's largest single optical telescope, the E-ELT, began with a minor bang on the top of Cerro Armazones, Chile.
Jan Hattenbach

It was certainly not the giant blast many spectators at Paranal, Chile, and on the web had expected and hoped for. But June 19th’s minor mountaintop bang marked the groundbreaking for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), one of a new generation of giant telescopes. Officials from Chile, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) member states and worldwide media attended as mining workers blasted the first 5,000 cubic meters of Cerro Armazones, a 3,060-meter (10,040-foot) high mountain in the Atacama desert in northern Chile.

Watch the preparations for the blast here:

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The Beginning

Attending the E-ELT groundbreaking

Jorge Maldonado (subsecretary of the Chilean Ministry of National Assets) gives the radio command for the blast as Tim de Zeeuw (ESO Director General, left) watches through binoculars.
Jan Hattenbach

The ESO chose Cerro Armazones as the site of the future E-ELT in April 2010. The telescope faced some design changes in recent years, shrinking the original 42-meter primary meter to 39.3 meters across to reduce cost, but the telescope is still scheduled to see see first light in 2024. In June 2012 the ESO council approved the final design for the telescope’s construction. With its segmented primary mirror, the E-ELT will be the largest single optical telescope on Earth, narrowly beating the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which are both expected to see first light on approximately the same timeline.

Construction at the site began in March with the preparation of a steep driveway to the top of the mountain. The site lies about 70 miles south of the port city of Antofagasta in northern Chile and only 12 miles from ESO’s Paranal Observatory, home to the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which was constructed in the 1990s. The mountain blast on June 19th was only the beginning of several blasts that will make room for the E-ELT building by lowering the mountaintop by about 20 meters. According to ESO, it will take 16 months before the civil works are done and the platform and road are ready. In total, 220,000 cubic meters of Cerro Armazones will be blasted.

Armazones proximity to the VLT will facilitate the operation of the new telescope. Existing infrastructure at Paranal will be used for Armazones as well, and the Paranal facility will control the new telescope as well.

E-ELT and the Giant Telescopes

European Extremely Large Telescope

An artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) atop Cerro Armazones in Chile's Atacama Desert. With a primary mirror 129 feet (39.3 m) across, it will be the world's largest optical-infrared telescope when completed around 2022.
ESO

The E-ELT mirror is the size of almost half a soccer pitch, and will gather 13 times more light than the largest optical telescopes existing today. Adaptive optics will mitigate the influence of Earth’s atmosphere, so the telescope can capture images 16 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope. Even the dome is extreme — at almost 100 meters high, it will become a conspicuous landmark in the desert.

The E-ELT, ESO’s flagship facility, will cost about $1.4 billion. As one of the three telescopes in the “extremely large” class, the E-ELT will have the GMT as its neighbour in northern Chile, whichbroke ground in March 2012 near Las Campanas Observatory. The competing TMT will sit atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; its construction should begin this summer.

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