World's Largest Telescope To Begin Construction In 2012

01/04/2012 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

What do you call a telescope with a 32-foot mirror that cost €130 million to build? A pipsqueak. At least that's what the massive Gran Telescopio Canarias will be when the long-anticipated European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) becomes a reality. Thanks to the recent approval of the telescope's 2012 budget, the massive device will likely begin construction this year, and when it's finished it may be able to detect signs of life in planets light-years away.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), a consortium of astronomy researchers representing fifteen European countries, administrates the E-ELT and other telescopes; the ESO released a statement outlining the scientific goals of the E-ELT, including the quest for extrasolar planets," planets that orbit stars other than our own.

Perhaps more excitingly, it will be powerful enough to "probe the earliest stages of the formation of planetary systems and [attempt] to detect water and organic molecules...around stars in the making." This means that the telescope will be able to, effectively, detect signs of life. And with a new and exciting roster of 'habitable zone' planets to be investigated, it looks as though the E-ELT may appear at just the right moment in history to help determine whether we're alone in the universe.

According to the ESO, "Such a telescope may, eventually, revolutionise our perception of the Universe, much as Galileo's telescope did, 400 years ago."

The demands on such a device are steep. The main mirror, which will extend about half the length of a football field, will be nearly four times as wide as the current record-holder, the Canary Islands' Gran Telescopio Canarias, and will gather a staggering 15 times more light. In total, it's projected to cost $1.43 billion, taking 10-11 years to complete.

The telescope has suffered several delays since its early planning in 2006, including budget negotiations that decreased the planned size of the mirror to 129 feet from its original diameter of about 138 feet.

When it's finished, atop the Cerro Armazones mountain in Chile's Atacama desert, it will be the crown jewel of a network of South American observatories that are strategically located to maximize clear skies.

On top of all this, the E-ELT isn't anywhere near the most ambitious project the ESO has come up with; that honor goes to the amusingly-named Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, a concept for a 100m telescope that was ultimately scrapped so that the ESO could focus on the E-ELT.