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World’s largest telescope to be built in northern Chile in 2012

Top European observatory has chosen to build the E-ELT in Antofagasta, where clear skies and dry weather make the region one of the world’s best natural observatories.

Thursday, June 30, 2011  
Chile's Atacama has the world's clearest skies. (Photo: Chile's Atacama has the world's clearest skies. (Photo:

The start date for construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, has been set: January 2012. It will perch atop the Cerro Armazones hill, at more than 9,000 feet above sea level (3,000 meters), in Chile’s northern region of Antofagasta.


The telescope is expected to open for world astronomers in 2020, operating in tandem with the existing Paranal observatory and its Very Large Telescope, also located in Antofagasta.


“The E-ELT will be the largest and most advanced of the extremely large telescopes, designed with five mirrors and integrated adaptive optics, which will make it the leading installation in many areas of astronomy,” said Tim de Zeeuw, general director of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The ESO is already responsible for the Paranal observatory as well as the La Silla observatory in La Serena, closer to Santiago, among others.


Until recently, the project was overshadowed by the question of funding such a large and ambitious design, with necessary investments expected to total US$1.5 billion. After making small changes to the telescope’s design - including reducing the diameter of the primary mirror from 131.2 ft (40 meters) to 128.9 ft (39.3 meters) - de Zeeuw says the telescope is now set to be built, both technically and financially.


Even with the small changes, the E-ELT will still be capable of collecting 15 times more light than the best optical telescopes in the world, and will deliver images 15 times more detailed than those obtained by the Hubble telescope.


Northern Chile’s natural characteristics make it one of the world’s best places from which to observe the universe. A growing number of “astronomy tourists” travel to the depths of the Atacama desert each year for an unparalleled view of the sky, and Chilean observatories work with astronomers from all around the world. Chile’s E-ELT is already slated to work with the U.S. space agency, NASA, on its James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched in 2018.