CERRO ARMAZONES: The most powerful optical instrument ever built that will enhance astronomers’ observational capabilities is slowly emerging from the ground in northern Chile as one of the best places to watch the stars is one of.
This new “eye on the sky,” which will be added to the powerful observation instruments already in service in the Atacama Desert from 2027, will make it possible to multiply the current observation capacity by 5,000 and gaze at hitherto unknown places. To answer the still open questions about the origin of the universe.
“There are some scientific questions that we want to answer and technology is needed to answer these questions,” Chilean astronomer Luis Chavarria of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) told AFP. ELT.
“Astronomy has always worked at the edge of technology, at the edge of detection, at the edge of all that these amazing instruments can provide,” he says.
Current observational instruments, such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) – currently the most powerful instrument – and ALMA, the world’s largest radio telescope, both located in northern Chile, have been able to answer the questions scientists are asking themselves. Were. three decades ago.
But the limits of knowledge have been pushed back, forcing the creation of even more efficient equipment, such as the ELT, which is installed at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters on the hill of the Armazones, about twenty kilometers from the VLT. Will be done. In the middle of the desert by ESO.
The ELT, whose construction began in 2017, will have a single primary mirror with a diameter of 39 meters, made up of 798 smaller hexagonal mirrors. It will be housed in a huge hemispherical dome of 85 meters in diameter, which will be 74 meters above the ground. The two round doors would later open to allow observation at night.
“It’s a big deal to be able to achieve the level of accuracy needed to be able to use these telescopes to the maximum (…), something that pushes back the barriers of technology,” enthuses Luis Chavarria. Technical achievement.
“image 15 times sharper”
The construction cost of the massive 2,800-tonne set is estimated at 1.3 billion euros.
The “major civil engineering works” phase is currently 40% complete, with the construction of the surrounding wall supporting the dome that will support the mirror panels.
“ELT is an evolution of VLT(…), obviously it is a completely different scale to anything that has been done before, so it has very different (technical) requirements,” hence the time required for the work, Guido Vecchia, site manager, told AFP.
Current optical telescopes with diameters of 8 to 10 meters have enabled scientists to search for exoplanets, planets in orbit around other stars where the search for traces of life is focused.
But to deepen their knowledge, more precise, and therefore larger, observational instruments are needed, capable of collecting greater amounts of light.
According to ESO, the Intergovernmental Organization for Astronomy in Europe, with its diameter of 39 meters, the ELT will “collect 15 times more light than optical telescopes in operation today and provide images 15 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.” will do”. 198 million euros is funded annually by 16 European member states.
“This is a project for the future that will enable us to reach other distances in the universe”, points out Susie Solis, geologist and technical assistant for building the ELT.
The climatic characteristics of the Atacama Desert and its dry season, which allow observation in a completely clear sky, a very high proportion (90%) of the nights of the year, make it a particularly favorable location for astronomical observations.
One of its ultimate goals, according to ESO, will be “to capture images of rocky exoplanets to characterize their atmospheres and directly measure the acceleration of the expansion of the universe”.
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