The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will soon become the largest telescope in the world, eclipsing the 405-inch Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands. When construction is complete, the new telescope will have a diameter of over 1,520 inches - more than 126 feet across.
Telescopes need to be large in order to gather as much light as possible. Just as greater volumes of water can run through pipes with larger diameters, larger telescopes gather more light, allowing astronomers to see dimmer objects.
The E-ELT telescope is designed to see objects too faint to be seen using current technologies. The massive size of the new optical instrument will allow astronomers to see objects in space 14 times dimmer than the faintest images available today. Astronomers using the E-ELT observatory will be able to view targets in both visible and infrared wavelengths.
The Council, which governs the European Southern Observatory (ESO), approved funding to build the telescope and some scientific equipment. The observatory will be built in Chile, far away from artificial lights, in one of the driest deserts on the planet.
"The decision taken by Council means that the telescope can now be built, and that major industrial construction work for the E-ELT is now funded and can proceed according to plan. There is already a lot of progress in Chile on the summit of Armazones and the next few years will be very exciting," Tim de Zeeuw, director general for the ESO, said.
Earth-like exoplanets in alien solar systems could be revealed using the new observatory, allowing astronomers the ability to search for the tell-tale signs of alien life. Astronomers will also be able to study distant galaxies in great detail.
"All the most exciting topics in astronomy will be advanced. They include the study of atmospheres of exoplanets - planets around other stars - to look for molecular imbalances that could indicate the presence of life - and the sources of violent explosions around supermassive and other black holes that we detect already in other parts of the spectrum," Jay M. Pasachoff of Williams College in Massachusetts said.
The E-ELT telescope is not the only massive instrument of its type currently under construction. The Giant Magellan Telescope, a multi-mirror telescope, will be built in Chile, and the Thirty Meter Telescope is scheduled for construction in Hawaii.
Groundbreaking for the observatory took place in June 2014, as several financial and contractual obligations were completed. Costs of the project are expected to top $1.34 billion. Construction of the massive telescope is scheduled to be completed within 10 years.