by Marc Pinter-Krainer
The peak of a 10,000-ft-high mountain has been blasted in Chile to make room for a gigantic telescope
The top of a Chilean mountain was blown up in an almost ceremonial fashion this week - marking the beginning of the construction of the world's largest optical telescope. Situated in the Atacama Desert deep in the Chilean Andes, the location is perfect for star-gazing as the sky is clear all year round.
On Thursday afternoon, the top of the 10,000-ft-high Cerro Armazones mountain was blown off in a controlled explosion which blasted away nearly a million tons of rock. It made way to a flat base which is set to be the home of the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The telescope is designed to be much larger in size than any optical telescope built to date. It will be equipped with a 128-foot-wide mirror - four times larger than any optical mirror ever built and capable of capturing 15 times more light than any other telescope currently in existence.
Professor Niranjan Thatte at Oxford University, who heads up the construction of the spectrograph instrument for the new telescope, put the E-ELT's unprecedented ability to collect the faint light of far-away worlds into context: "The E-ELT will have almost as much light collecting area as all the telescopes previously built, put together," Prof Thatte explained.
Funded by the European Southern Observatory at a cost of $1.1 billion, the E-ELT will take eight years to build, and will facilitate the research of alien Earth-like planets orbiting neighbouring stars.
"One of the most exciting programs will be to study the atmospheres of Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, and to search for signs of biological activity," Tim de Zeeuw, ESO's director general, said during a ceremony before the blast. "Finding evidence of life elsewhere in the universe would be a transformational development in the history of our species. It is actually quite ironic that this could happen right here in the Atacama Desert, one of the most beautiful, but certainly very lifeless, locations on our own planet."