19 Jun 2014

Chile mountain top blown off (in the name of astrophysics)

The top of a Chilean mountain is blown up to make way for a telescope that will look for life on other planets. Channel 4 News speaks to one of the men behind the E-ELT.

Deep in the Chilean Andes, in the middle of the Atacama desert, the rocky top of a 3,000 metre mountain will be blasted by dynamite on Thursday evening.

It sounds like the finale of the James Bond film Quantum Solace that was filmed in the very same desert. But this explosion is happening for real and will be broadcast live around the world between 5.30pm and 7.30pm GMT.

This area of northern Chile is perfect for star-gazing: the sky is clear for most of the year and there is a distinct lack of rain. And blasting off nearly a million tonnes of rock from the top of the Cerro Armazones mountain will create a flat base for a ground-breaking new telescope that will have the power to see further into space than anything that has come before.

Watch: Channel 4 News visited the telescope at its first frontier...back in 2011

The imaginatively named European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) flagship new £879m piece of kit, and marks a significant step forward in the field of astronomy.

The European Space Observatory will be live tweeting the explosion from @ESO under the hashtag #EELTblast

Above: artist’s impression of the EELT. (Image credit: ESO)

Is there anybody out there?

Nicknamed the “world’s biggest eye on the sky”, the telescope is the size of Wembley Stadium and will have a 39 metre mirror that can create 15 times more light than any other optical telescope currently.

To put this in context: “the E-ELT will have almost as much light collecting area as all the telescopes previously built, put together,” said Oxford University’s Professor Niranjan Thatte, who is leading the international consortium that is building the first-light spectrograph for the telescope.

This telescope is effectively a time machine – we can peer back into the earlier epochs of the universeProfessor Niranjan Thatte

“This analyses the colours of light that the telescope collects, which allows us to determine the physical properites of what it is studying and the mix of elements in the near and far reachers of the universe – including whether conditions are right for liquid water on extra-solar planets”, he told Channel 4 News.

“It’s really going to open up a vast new realm in astro-physical observations because of the combination of increased sensitivity and increased sharpness.”

Prototypes for the telescope’s mirror system are being developed the the UK technology centre, OpTIC, and it will eventually be made up of 798 hexagonal mirrors each 1.4m wide. These mirrors will change shape a thousand times a second and images created from the telescope will be 16 times sharper than those produced by the hubble space telescope.

Time travelling

Reaching into the further corners of the universe effectively means travellng in time. As Prof Thatte puts it: “This telescope is effectively a time machine – we can peer back into the earlier epochs of the universe.”

Dr Aprajita Verma, deputy project scientist for the E-ELT’s UK project at Oxford University added: “The E-ELT will allow astronomers to reach deeper into space, further back in time and more intimately into the workings of the universe than any other visible to infrared telescope ever built.”

As well as marking huge technical advances, setting up the giant telescope has also been one of the biggest global science collaborations in history, and the UK is the one of 15 countries involved.

The British government has invested £88m, which has secured the involvement of UK scientists and engineers, through the science and technology facilities council (STFC).

STFC’s Professor Colin Cunningham said it was a “milestone” for the astronomy community, and a huge opportunity for UK industry. But before we get too excited, it will be another 10 years before the telescope is up and running in 2024.

But the possibilities and potential of what can be found, are what is really getting astronomers excited. “We know what we can do with it for first 10 years, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t come up with something totally innovative that we can’t even predict,” added Prof Thatte.

“Discovery potential is one of the prime drivers, apart from the science we know we will be able to do.”