SCIENCE
12/08/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

World's Biggest Telescope Gets Long-Awaited Green Light

Four centuries have passed since the invention of the telescope, and in that time telescopes have gotten bigger and bigger--the better to peer into deep space.

Now the green light has been given for construction to begin on what is projected to be the world's biggest telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

The announcement was made Dec. 4 by the European Southern Observatory, the multinational organization that's behind the project. Construction of the telescope is expected to cost 1.083 billion euros, or $1.34 billion (at 2012 prices), with operations to begin in 2024, Space.com reported.

An optical and infrared telescope, the E-ELT will feature a gargantuan 39-meter aperture that will make the scope the "biggest eye on the sky" and give it unparalleled capabilities, according to the ESO. It is to be built atop Cerro Armazones, a 3,000-meter (10,000-foot) mountain in Chile's Atacama Desert. The desert is one of the driest regions on Earth and is considered one of the best places from which to observe the sky.

The E-ELT will gather 15 times more light than the biggest optical telescopes now in operation and produce images 15 times sharper than those produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, according to the ESO. But what exactly will it mean for astronomy and our understanding of the cosmos?

"All of astronomy will be advanced," Dr. Jay M. Pasachoff, professor of astronomy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and co-author of "The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium," told The Huffington Post in an email.

Specifically, he said:

"Everything will be 10 times quicker to study, and the giant diameter coupled with the new adaptive optics that takes out the effects of our atmospheres' twinkling will allow a concentration of starlight that will speed up observations still more and provide more detailed images of distant galaxies. 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. We will be able to pinpoint disks of gas and dust around distant stars that represent solar systems in formation, and see exoplanets directly."

Pretty impressive. And the E-ELT isn't the only titanic telescope on the way.

According to Space.com, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is to be constructed atop Las Campanas, another Chilean peak, with operations starting in 2021. And the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will begin operations from Hawaii's Mauna Kea starting in 2022.

But Pasachoff worries there could be a downside to the big telescope bonanza--the possibility that funding for the operation of existing telescopes could come under pressure.

"There is still lots to do with the current generations of telescopes, and they remain important for the training of the next generation of astronomers," he said in the email. "We must be careful not to put all our eggs in the three baskets of E-ELT, TMT, and GMT, as spectacular as they will be."

HuffPost

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