The telescope big enough to spot signs of alien life on other planets
Engineers are about to blast away the top of a Chilean mountain to create a site for the European Extremely Large Telescope. It will allow us, for the first time, to directly observe planets outside the solar system
Cerro Armazones dominates the parched peaks of the Chilean Coast Range north of Santiago. This remote mountain in Chile has been confirmed as the construction area for the largest telescope ever constructed on Earth: the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The E-ELT is going to be ten times larger than any other surface telescope and sensitive enough to be able to spot life outside of our solar system.
Cerro Armazones is about to undergo dramatic changes to its mountain range. The 10,000ft mountain is going to have about 80ft blown off the top.
“We are going to blast it with dynamite and then carry off the rubble,” says engineer Gerd Hudepohl. “We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”
You may be wondering if this is even possible, given the peak’s remote, hostile location. Fear not, Gerd Hudepohl has done this before; he is one of the European Southern Observatory’s most experienced engineers. He was involved in the decapitation of another nearby mountain, Cerro Paranal, on which his team then erected one of the planet’s most sophisticated observatories.
The telescope itself will be huge. The main mirror will be a giant 39 meters in diameter. This is way too large to have in one piece so it will be made of almost 800 segments, each 1.4 metres in diameter but only a few centimetres thick, these will have to be aligned with microscopic precision as even microscopic variations can alter the images. Mass producing mirror segments will keep the telescope’s budget low.
The location was chosen because the peak of Cerro Armazones has incredibly dry air. Professor Gerry Gilmore, a Cambridge University astronomer explains,
“The atmosphere here is as dry as you can get and that is critically important. Water molecules obscure the view from telescopes on the ground. It is like trying to peer through mist – for mist is essentially a suspension of water molecules in the air, after all, and they obscure your vision. For a telescope based at sea level, that is a major drawback. However, if you build your telescope where the atmosphere above you is completely dry, you will get the best possible views of the stars – and there is nowhere on Earth that has air drier than this place. For good measure, the high-altitude winds blow in a smooth, laminar manner above Paranal – like slabs of glass – so images of stars remain remarkably steady as well.”
About 12 miles away, the Paranal complex houses about 100 scientists and staff who operate the four Very Large Telescopes (VLT). Over the past decade, these truly amazing VLTs have been involved in making an astonishing number of critically important discoveries and observations. Olivier Hainaut, ESO astronomer, explains
“Perhaps the VLT’s most spectacular achievement was its tracking of stars at the centre of the Milky Way. Astronomers followed them as they revolved around… nothing. Eventually, they were able to show that something incredibly small and dark and massive lay at the centre of this interstellar waltz. This was the first time, we now know, that scientists had directly observed the effect of the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of our galaxy.”
As unbelievable as it sounds astronomers will begin to use the E-ELT early in the next decade. The E-ELT will outperform anything we are using today. Purely because of its size, it will be able to collect light about 10x faster than existing telescope, resolving and discovering issues that existing telescopes have not been sensitive enough to do. In the next 15 years astronomers will be looking for exoplanets that are Earth-like and which could support life. Currently, the biggest telescopes can only spot the large exoplanets such as Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomers will be looking for smaller worlds that make up the solar systems in our galaxy.
The giant telescope E-ELT will be able to see if there other Earth-like planets in our part of the universe. What they will be looking for is a planet around another star with its surface changing color just as Earth does as the seasons change. This could indicate that vegetation is happening on that world and we will alien life, another life form on that planet!
The telescope will also be able to observe some of the oldest stars and galaxies in the universe, this will be to study dark matter and dark energy. What is truly exciting is the speed that technology is evolving and by the time the telescope is completed we will be uncovering questions that we haven’t even thought of yet.
Source | NC