Friday, December 12, 2014

How the World’s Largest Telescope Will Hunt for Alien Life

Over the next decade, a new class of super-giant ground telescopes will emerge onto the astronomical scene. By far the most most gargantuan of these projects is the aptly named European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which just secured its first phase of funding—a whopping 1.24 billion Euros (1.54 billion USD).

Currently scheduled to receive its first light in 2024, the E-ELT’s primary mirror will be an unprecedented 39.3 meters (130 feet) wide, several meters larger than competitors like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope

From its perch in Chile’s Atacama Desert, it will be able to detect the atmospheric composition of terrestrial planets and glimpse the first objects ever to shine in the universe, which have never been directly observed before. 

“The bigger the telescope, the sharper are the images you can make,” E-ELT astronomer Jochen Liske told me over Skype. “The E-ELT is by far the largest. It will have an edge over all the competing projects.”

The telescope will be an especially significant player in the search for extraterrestrial life. Space and ground telescopes alike have been identifying and characterizing exosolar planets for decades, but E-ELT has the potential to zoom in on the most tantalizing candidates with unmatched precision.

“This investigation might be most fun and most promising if you do it on a rocky, Earth-like planet around a solar type star, where the planet is also at the right distance from its star,” explained Liske. “To do that, you simply need a very big telescope. There’s just no way around it.”

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