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13 December, 2006 - 14:56 By News Desk

Cambridge astronomer’s role in new telescope development

An East of England astronomer has taken a major role in the lead-up to a £38 million project that will pave the way for construction of the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope in what is being hailed as a new era of unparalleled discovery.Professor Gary Gilmore of the University of Cambridge led the design study that has committed the European Space Observatory to the three-year preparation of blueprints for a €800 (£540m) 42 metre probe into the Universe, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

The E-ELT will be over one hundred times more sensitive than the present-day largest optical telescopes, such as the 10m Keck telescopes or the 8.2m VLT telescopes and will answer some of the biggest questions about the Universe in which we live.

The present €800m concept features as a baseline a 42m diameter segmented mirror telescope housed in an 80m diameter rotating dome.

It incorporates a large internal mirror able to distort its own shape a thousand times per second.

Crucial and innovative image sharpening technology will provide an unprecedented clear view of the distant universe enabling astronomers to probe the origins of planets, stars and galaxies, overcoming the fuzziness of stellar images due to atmospheric turbulence.

Prof Gilmore anticipates tremendous new science being made possible.

He said: “The E-ELT is critical to allow the next big advance in understanding our mysterious universe.

“We will search for planets similar to the Earth around other stars, discover the nature of matter by mapping the distribution and properties of the dark matter, which is the matter of which nature is made, not the rather unimportant amount of stuff of which we are made, and investigate the future of the universe – is time infinite? – by examining the dark energy which seems to control the fate of space-time.”

European astronomers have been working with ESO to define the new giant telescope needed by the end of the next decade.

This fast pace has also been possible thanks to early conceptual studies complemented by a large mobilisation of European Institutes and high-tech Industries to develop critical enabling technologies in the framework of the so-called ELT Design Study, with ESO and the European Commission as the main funders, as well as with national contributions.

Prof Gilmore chaired the design study leading up to this decision.

“Constructing an E-ELT is extremely challenging – as you scale up a telescope the technical difficulties become much more significant.“

Scientists and industry will both have crucial parts to play in ensuring that the E-ELT is viable and the UK community will be looking to take leading roles in design and construction of the telescope and its instruments as well as in the eventual scientific work.

”The site of the E-ELT is not yet fixed as studies are still undergoing with a plan to make a decision by 2008.

“At the end of the three year final design study, we will know exactly how everything is going to be built including a detailed costing,” said Catherine Cesarsky, ESO’s director general.

“We then hope to start construction and have it ready by 2017, when we can install instruments and use it!”

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