The governing board for ESO — the European Southern Observatory — recently approved plans for the world’s largest telescope. Known as the Extremely Large Telescope, its main mirror, which gathers and focuses starlight, will span 39 meters — big enough to hold two basketball courts side by side with room to spare.
It’s the latest bold step for an observatory that was born 50 years ago today. Six European countries signed an agreement creating the observatory on October 5th, 1962. Today, the organization has expanded to 15 member countries.
At the time ESO began, all of the world’s big telescopes were in the northern hemisphere. That left much of the southern sky unexplored. So astronomers picked a mountain in Chile, called La Silla, for the new observatory.
It began with a few small telescopes in the mid-1960s. Before long, though, there wasn’t enough room on La Silla, so the observatory added a second site, also in Chile.
Today, these sites host a score of instruments. The roster includes the Very Large Telescope — a linked set of four telescopes with mirrors that are each eight meters in diameter. And ESO is working with the United States and others to build a giant array of radio telescopes known as ALMA.
The Extremely Large Telescope could join the lineup in the next decade. It’ll see deeper into space than any telescope yet built — expanding the frontiers of astronomy for Europe and the rest of the world.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
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