While the United States’ space program may be withering up into a sad nostalgic raisin, at least the Europeans are still thinking extremely large. Member states of the European Southern Observatory and a number of partners, including Brazil, have approved for construction what will become the world’s biggest optical telescope.
And just to make perfectly clear who it is that’s building the telescope and how big it will be, they’ve gone ahead and named it the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Alternate titles spitballed in the brainstorming session included Seriously Huge Euro-Scope and Super Big-Ass Space Tube.
But alas, the European Extremely Large Telescope won out, and it is now slated to be built atop a mountaintop in Chile. It will boast a mirror spanning 40 meters in diameter (131 ft), and will be able to do a bunch of stuff less well endowed scopes cannot.
Here’s the BBC: "The E-ELT will detect objects in the visible and near-infrared. Its 39.3m main mirror will be more than four times the width of today’s best optical telescopes … Its sensitivity and resolution should make it possible to image directly rocky planets beyond our Solar System.
“The observatory should also be able to provide major insights into the nature of black holes, galaxy formation, the mysterious “dark matter” that pervades the Universe, and the even more mysterious “dark energy” which appears to be pushing the cosmos apart at an accelerating rate."
Somewhat humorously, the Extremely Large Telescope will be built on Cerros Amazones, a mountain 20 kilometers from ESO’s last project, the comparatively wimpy Very Large Telescope. And mysteries abound—what will the scientists see through a lens four times bigger than the currently existing tech? Will the EU last long enough to fund the project through 2022, its stated completion date? And, most importantly, which adverb will they turn to when they decide to go even bigger? Only perpetually expanding, dark energy-propelled space-time will tell.