The super-telescope we’ve been waiting for is finally taking off

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We now have blastoff on construction of the most enormous optical/infrared telescope ever.

After years of meticulous planning and massive funding efforts, not to mention anxious astronomers dreaming out loud about just what they will possibly be able to observe through its lens, the first foundation stone for the  appropriately named ESO (European Southern Observatory) Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) was recently laid at its future site near the ESO Paranal Observatory in Northern Chile.

Size matters when it comes to telescopes. Equipped with a primary mirror about 128 feet in diameter, composed of 798 individual hexagonal segments, the ELT will go where no ground telescope has gone before by imaging elusive exoplanets and celestial objects too distant to be observed by its predecessors. Extra-sensitive edge sensors will enable the mirror to self-correct each segment with every move the scope makes. There are more mirrors where that came from. Besides its primary and secondary mirrors, this space-gazing Godzilla has a tertiary mirror that will sharpen the quality of its images even further. Additional mirrors will supplement the scope with adaptive optics and the ability to stabilize images.

“The ELT will produce discoveries that we can simply not imagine today, and it will surely inspire numerous people around the world to think about science, technology, and our place in the world,” said Tim de Zeeuw of ESO.

So what previously unseen things will the ELT encounter as it peers into the final frontier? Expolanets—especially those in habitable zones—are high on its ambitious agenda. That futuristic mirror will have increased light-collecting capabilities that will allow it to view objects other telescopes might have missed because they were too faint or distant. It will also boost the scope’s angular resolution which will make it easier to distinguish objects in close proximity instead of seeing them as a blur.

Whether or not we find aliens or Planet 9, the ESO’s #squadgoals for this telescope don’t stop there. It will do a deep dive into galaxies so many light-years away that they will appear to us as they were billions and billions (and billions) of years ago, and give us a better understanding of the first stars, planets, and black holes lurking in those galaxies, and how these objects relate to each other. It is also expected to determine how such galaxies evolved over the aeons they remained unknown to us. Without ever entering alien atmospheres, it should be able to detect biosignatures in protoplanetary disks as they form around stars. Did I mention delving into dark matter and dark energy, and possibly even measuring the acceleration of the universe?

“We are building more than a telescope here,” said Chilean President Michelle Bachelet Jeria. “It is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation.”

Mind officially blown.

(via The Space Reporter)