Future observatory in Chile beyond astronomy’s wildest dreams

This is Chile spoke with Dr. Jochen Liske, astronomer at the E-ELT Science Office, on the making, and future of the world’s largest optical / infrared telescope. 

The name may cause a chuckle, but it’s undoubtedly true: the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be extremely large when it is fully complete in the Atacama Desert around 2021.
Plans for the E-ELT include an “eye” almost half the length of a soccer field in diameter, and a mirror design system able to provide images 15 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope. Once complete, the US$1.3 billion project will be the largest optical / infrared telescope in the world.
But why is this enormous telescope being built, and how far along is the construction process? This is Chile spoke with Dr. Jochen Liske, astronomer at the E-ELT Science Office, to find out.
Designing the E-ELT
ESO already has a well-established presence in the Atacama Desert, with three state-of-the-art research facilities at La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. But in 2005, ESO began brainstorming the future needs of the astronomy community, aware that by 2020, scientists would be reaching the boundary of what could be discovered with current technology.
According to Dr. Liske, what came next was an exploratory process that aimed to determine the exact type of telescope that the scientific community would find most useful for their future research.
“We did a variety of things – hosted conferences, had people give talks about their science cases, held an online survey. We were asking, ‘imagine if you had this telescope, and what would you do, what instruments would you need,’” Dr. Liske told This is Chile.
Dr. Liske’s team then helped engineers turn these scientific research ideas – like examining earth-like exoplanets or pinpointing the speed of the Universe’s expansion – into the specific design parameters for the E-ELT telescope.
While the ESO astronomers came up with fascinating proposals, Dr. Liske says he’s most excited about the E-ELT’s potential to make discoveries that the astronomy community can’t even imagine yet. 
“If you read documents about what people thought they would do with the Hubble Space Telescope back during the design phase, it’s very interesting science, but it’s not what it became famous for. It’s famous for things nobody had foreseen at the time. We’re pretty sure that’s the same for the E-ELT.”
The E-ELT’s future
Plans for the E-ELT were approved at an ESO Council meeting in June 2012, but the project is currently waiting on complete confirmation and funding from additional ESO Member States – at which point construction on the project can begin.
In the meantime, Dr. Liske said, ESO is working to consolidate plans, design roadways, and reach out to construction contacts within the industry.
“It’s going to be a very complex machine, and you need to break it down into smaller parts  and systems – it’s easy to overlook a piece of something this size. We are essentially ready to go and ready to start building, we just need the final Member States.”
Visiting the E-ELT
It will take over 10 years to complete the E-ELT once construction begins. That’s a long time to wait, but it will be worth it – especially because Dr. Liske is optimistic about the possibility of tourists being able to visit the completed site.
“It will be the largest telescope on the planet. We’d be crazy not to offer tours to this!” said the astronomer.
By Liz Rickles