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World's biggest telescope clears hurdle

PARIS--A plan to build the biggest land-based optical telescope in the world has cleared an important hurdle, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced late Monday.

Two-thirds of ESO's governing council gave full or provisional approval for the so-called European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which opens the way to starting work on the project, it said in a press release.

The 1.083-billion-euro (US$1.35 billion) scheme entails building a telescope with a massive light-catching mirror 39.3 meters (127 feet) wide, several times the size of the biggest optical telescopes today.

It will be sited on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO's existing Paranal Observatory, where the extremely arid conditions and high altitude offer excellent viewing of the skies.

“This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project,” ESO's director general, Tim de Zeeuw, was quoted as saying after the council meeting in Garching, Germany.

If all goes well, the E-ELT would start operations about a decade from now, becoming one of the great astronomical assets of the 21st century alongside a planned radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) set to be build in South Africa and Australia.

“The E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the 'habitable zones' where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy,” ESO said.

ESO, which marks its 50th anniversary, is Europe's biggest international venture in astronomy.

In Monday's vote, six out of 10 countries gave firm approval and four gave “ad referendum” approval, meaning that they needed an official green light from their governments.

Four other countries said they supported the scheme and were “actively working towards joining the program in the near future,” ESO said.

Work on building the E-ELT will start once the “ad referendum” votes are made official and financial commitments are secured for at least 90 percent of the total cost.

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This handout artist's impression released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on Sunday, June 11 shows the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure on Cerro Armazones, a 3,060-meter mountaintop in Chile's Atacama Desert.

(AFP)

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