ESO’s ELT Is Likely As Large As Optical Telescopes Will Get

The ELT, or Extremely Large Telescope, is set to revolutionize ground-based astronomy. As the largest optical telescope in the world, it will provide scientists with unprecedented views of our universe. Located on Cerro Armazones in Chile, the ELT’s construction is already underway and is expected to be completed in about four years.

With a 39-meter ‘eye on the sky,’ the ELT will capture incredibly clear images, surpassing the precision of the Hubble Space Telescope by 16 times. Its advanced technology will enable researchers to observe distant exoplanets, nebulae, and even delve into the mysteries of our own Milky Way and the earliest galaxies in the Universe.

However, while the ELT is a groundbreaking achievement, it may also be the peak of what is technically feasible for a single aperture optical telescope. According to Luis Chavarria Garrido, ESO’s representative in Chile, constructing a telescope larger than the ELT would present significant challenges. The current observatory dome, already pushing the limits, would likely be unsuitable for a 100-meter telescope. Maintaining and cleaning the mirrors of such a massive telescope would also pose difficulties if it were left exposed to the open air.

The ELT’s main mirror, too large to be made in one piece, will consist of 798 optical mirrors arranged in a hexagonal pattern. These mirror segments are being manufactured by the German company Schott and will be polished by Safran Reosc, a French optomechanical systems manufacturer.

Despite a year’s delay due to the impact of Covid, construction on the ELT has made remarkable progress. Technical first light is expected by early 2028, marking the moment when the telescope receives its first photons from a celestial target. Subsequently, a year and a half of science commissioning will take place, utilizing the initial images obtained to further scientific understanding.

The ELT’s construction has been made possible by the success of ESO’s Nearby Very Large Telescope (VLT). The experience gained from building the VLT paved the way for the ambitious ELT project. Looking ahead, ESO aims to optimize the ELT’s maintenance through the use of artificial intelligence. By employing AI, the observatory can proactively address mechanical issues and enhance overall efficiency.

As the ELT progresses towards completion, the astronomy community eagerly awaits the answers it will provide and the new questions it will inspire. With its unprecedented capabilities, the ELT represents a significant milestone in our exploration of the cosmos.

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