E-ELT telescope project starts with a great big bang on a mountaintop


Cerro Armazones, a mountain in Chile, exploded, as the peak of its structure was torn asunder by massive forces. But this destruction was man-made, and done in the name of science. 

The blast was part of a groundbreaking construction of the world's largest telescope, and was streamed live for viewers to watch online. Although many viewers hoped for a more dramatic show, the live stream showed just a puff of smoke and debris on a distant mountaintop. 

Around 55 feet of the mountaintop was removed, and subsequent blasts will help clear remaining rock and ledges. Builders estimate a total of 1,750 tons of debris will be removed from the site before demolition is complete. 

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a main mirror 128 feet across. This will allow the telescope to gather an unprecedented amount of light, providing images of objects to dark and distant to be seen by current observatories. By comparison, the ultra-modern Keck Observatory in Hawaii has mirrors just 33 feet from side to side. 

Extra-terrestrial planets, even the size of Earth, could be directly imaged using the E-ELT observatory. Astronomers will also be able to gather information, including the composition of atmospheres and surfaces on the distant worlds. Astrobiologists could then use this data to identify the most likely places to find alien life. 

Cerro Armazones rises 10,000 feet above the Atacama Desert, which creates still, dry air. These conditions are ideal for the massive telescope. The location was chosen for the observatory in 2010, by officials of the European Southern Observatory. 

As astronomers look at distant objects, they are also looking back in time. When we see our galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, laying 2.5 light years away, we see it as it looked when early hominids were first learning to sculpt stone tools. The E-ELT observatory will observe the Universe in visible and infrared wavelengths of light, similar to those studied by the Hubble Space Telescope. 

The facility "will also perform 'stellar archaeology' in nearby galaxies, as well as make fundamental contributions to cosmology by measuring the properties of the first stars and galaxies and probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy," ESO officials wrote on the official observatory Web page. 

The E-ELT will not be the sole giant telescope making observations of the sky in coming years. The Giant Magellan Telescope, another telescope planned for Chile and the Thirty Meter Telescope, set for construction in Hawaii are other super-giant observatories. All of these facilities are scheduled to see first light in the early 2020's. Together, they will give astronomers a new set of eyes on the Universe.

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