Building the world’s largest ground-based telescope

When we think of space, we think of the great unknown. We romanticise the brave astronauts orbiting the earth, the possibilities of far-off galaxies and exploring other planets. Rarely do we stop to think of the massive feats of engineering that go into making these dreams a reality. Without engineering sciences, we would never have left Earth’s atmosphere. Engineering is the backbone of the space industry, continuing to propel us – or least our imaginations – into galaxies far, far away.

Looking to the stars

Since the dawn of humanity, people have had a fascination with the stars. Pioneers from the time of Aristotle, Copernicus, and Galileo have all yearned to understand our universe and venture out into it. Now, we have the luxury of science and engineering behind us to really make this a possibility.

In 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) officially signed contracts with multiple construction and manufacturing partners to begin work on their latest development, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). While the name may leave a little to be desired, this massive engineering project will be based in Chile’s Atacama Desert and will be the most powerful telescope on Earth, producing vision 15 times clearer than that of the Hubble Telescope.

According to the ESO, the E-ELT dome and telescope structure “will take telescope engineering into new territory” and “tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time”. With projected observations including discovering Earth-like planets; super massive black holes; the first objects in the universe; and the nature and distribution of dark matter and dark energy, the E-ELT has the potential to be a real game-changer.

This revolutionary telescope will boast a 39-metre main mirror and will have the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world. It will also possess a dome 80 meters high, which to put into perspective, is less than 10 metres shy of London’s iconic clock, Big Ben. The science that goes into creating the mirror element alone is a huge project, one which requires the highest expertise and years of careful planning.  

Built with precision, the E-ELT will house multiple scientific instruments. Unlike similarly constructed Very Large Telescopes (VLTs), it will be possible for scientists to move from one instrument to another within minutes, and the telescope and dome itself will be able to move positions to start a new observation in a record timeframe. “The ability to observe over a wide range of wavelengths from the optical to mid-infrared will allow scientists to exploit the telescope's size to the fullest extent,” says ESO.

Constructing the world’s biggest ‘eye in the sky’

The engineering and project management work that will go into a feat as large as the E-ELT is unheralded in both industries. From an engineering standpoint, this is one of largest ground-based aerospace projects ever attempted, not to mention one of the most expensive.

The E-ELT was originally approved for construction back in 2012, with a caveat that contracts worth more than €2 million could only be awarded after 90 per cent of the total funding required had been secured. That equates to more than €1.083 billion in funding required before contracts were able to go to tender. Fast-forward to 2016, and funding goals have been reached and tenders accepted and awarded.

Partnering with the European-based construction company, Astaldi; Italian steel manufacturer, Cimolai; and contracted engineering company, EIE Group; the project is scheduled for completion by 2024.

“This project is truly visionary, both in what it represents for the field of astronomy and for construction and engineering,” Paolo Astaldi, Chairman of Astaldi said.  

Tim de Zeeuw, Director General at ESO, believes the E-ELT will “produce discoveries that we simply cannot imagine today,” pushing the importance “to think about science, technology and our place in the universe.”

Where will the future of space engineering lead?

With the advancement of aerospace engineering technologies, organisations like the European Southern Observatory are able to expand their scope. And now private companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are able to work along government organisations like NASA, opening the industry up to become a viable and competitive playing field.

Arguably, the leader in private space travel and exploration, SpaceX, has based their business on the idea of using engineering technologies to build reusable rockets that will dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. Their prized vehicle, Falcon Heavy, is currently under development. Once completed, it will be the world’s most powerful rocket, taking the ‘space race’ to an all new level.

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