Construction of the Extremely Large Telescope started on Friday, May 26. Once completed, the instrument will be the world's largest optical and infrared telescope.

Five Times Larger Than Top Observing Instruments Today

The E-ELT, which is funded by the European Southern Observatory, an organization consisting of researchers from European and southern hemisphere nations, will be about five times larger compared with the top observing instruments currently used today. It's big enough that scientists look forward to its significant contributions in the field of astronomy.

With its main mirror measuring about 39 meters across, scientists hope that the instrument can find more smaller planets and image larger ones. With its size, the telescope's main mirror will be able to gather unprecedented amount of light to image objects deemed too dark and distant for current observatories.

Role In Mankind's Hunt For Alien Life

The telescope is deemed powerful enough to play a crucial role in mankind's hunt for alien life as it can directly image extraterrestrial planets the size of Earth, allowing astronomers to gather vital information such as the composition of the atmosphere and surfaces of extraterrestrial worlds. These data could then be used to identify the most probable places in the cosmos to find alien life.

"The ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the 'habitable zones' where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy," the ESO website reads.

Search For Life-Supporting Exoplanets

Simone Zaggia, of the Inaf Observatory of Padua, has said that the telescope will play an important role in the search for exoplanets, particularly Earth-like worlds that can support life. He explained that the biggest telescopes today can only spot big exoplanets as big as Saturn and Jupiter.

"We really want to know about the smaller worlds that make up the solar systems in our galaxy," Zaggia said. "We want to find out if there are many Earth-like planets in our part of the universe. More importantly we want to find out if their atmospheres contain levels of oxygen or carbon dioxide or methane or other substances that suggest there is life there. To do that, we need a giant telescope like the E-ELT."

Gerry Gilmore, from Cambridge University, explained that while scientists are able to see exoplanets, they cannot study them in detail since these worlds appear very close to their host stars from a distant perspective.

The magnification that the E-ELT will give though will allow researchers to look at these worlds directly and clearly. In the future, researchers could get a picture of planets around another star with color changes that are similar to what happens with season changes on Earth. This may indicate the presence of vegetation in these worlds which could mean the existence of alien life.

The telescope, which will be located on a 3,000-meter-high mountain of the Atacama desert, is expected to start its operation by 2024.

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