By Daniel Hunter

The UK research base and industry will be playing a leading role in one of the biggest global science collaborations in history, after the government confirmed long-term investment in the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) to be built in Chile.

The E-ELT will make huge strides toward our understanding of the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy and planets outside of the solar system. Its 39 metres in diameter mirror will collect 15 times more light than any existing telescope and it will produce images 16 times sharper than the Hubble space-based telescope.

The £88 million investment will ensure UK scientists and engineers are heavily involved in the construction and operation of the telescope and its instruments, set to be the most advanced of its kind. UK industry has already won £9 million worth of contracts, and that figure is predicted to increase as much as ten fold before 2023 when construction is expected to be completed.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

This significant investment reaffirms the government’s commitment to cutting edge science. It will ensure the UK plays a leading role in a groundbreaking international project and our world-class research base has access to the latest equipment.

Not only will this new telescope considerably increase knowledge of the universe, its construction will drive growth and innovation for UK industry. This is why space is one of our eight great technologies.

To top it off, the advances in technology that will result from this hugely challenging project will be a real asset to the UK and have knock-on effects for other sectors and areas of research.

In addition to significantly enhanced worldwide scientific knowledge, the E-ELT will benefit the UK in other ways. Technology developed for astronomy is already being applied across many sectors, including extending the life of artificial knee joints, diagnosing eye diseases, improving the performance of industrial lasers and laser fusion research.

Professor Colin Cunningham, from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) who is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office said:

UK teams of scientists and engineers have built strong positions over the last few years to enable them to make major contributions to the instruments, telescope engineering and optical systems. We expect to lead one of the ‘first light’ instruments and look forward to UK industry making competitive bids for contracts to supply optical devices, detectors, software and engineering services for this challenging project. This will culminate in UK astronomers having the opportunity to make breakthrough discoveries in exoplanet research and in understanding the origins and evolution of galaxies.

The UK has already played a major part in the E-ELT project, leading the development of the science case, developing instrument designs, optical technologies and telescope systems, and developing manufacturing processes. The UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and RAL Space, together with leading international institutes.

The advanced manufacturing challenges presented by the project are providing UK companies with the opportunity to apply for contracts. A UK technology development centre based in North Wales is delivering prototypes for the primary mirror system, which will consist of 798 hexagonal mirrors each 1.4m wide. This development is aimed at securing a potential €100 million order for UK industry to manufacture the production segments.

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