The government has confirmed it will cough up £88m to help fund the building of the world's largest optical telescope, which it is hoped will capture images of some of the first galaxies formed in the early universe.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is to be built in Chile, will feature a 39 metre mirror capable of collecting 15 times more light than any existing telescope, and is expected to produce images 16 times sharper than the space-based Hubble telescope.
The mirror's reflecting area is larger than the combined area of all major research telescopes currently in existence, according to its UK backers. The picture above shows its size in comparison with Big Ben.
That will not only enable it to detect light from the very earliest galaxies, it could help astronomers directly image planets orbiting stars other than our sun.
“Not only will this new telescope considerably increase knowledge of the universe, its construction will drive growth and innovation for UK industry,” added David Willetts, minister for science and universities.
It is expected to be 10 years before the E-ELT is operational, when it will sit staring at the stars from atop of the Cerro Armazones mountain in Chile's Atacama Desert, roughly 3,000 metres above sea level.
Under current plans, the telescope is expected to be the same size as a Premiership football stadium – although the final design has yet to be confirmed.
There is also the small matter of funding. The European Southern Observatory, which will lead the project, has said it must get commitments for 90 percent of the estimated €1.1bn construction costs before work can begin.
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