In their efforts to explore the mechanisms that drive the cosmos, astronomers use some pretty impressive machines – so you’d think they would bestow them with names that reflect their technological magnitude. But, instead, they give them names that are as banal as the machines are mighty.
In the beginning there was the telescope, and it was good, then they made a large telescope and called it the ‘Large Telescope’. This was superseded the ‘Very Large Telescope’. Then astronomers got really excited and they considered building a telescope so large that it would be known as the ‘Overwhelmingly Large Telescope’. But that superlative was deemed too exciting (or the plan to build a 100metre telescope too expensive) so they down-sized the project and called it... wait for it... the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’.
The European-Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT (to give it its full title) is the brain child of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and its construction has just been given the green light.
Despite being very much smaller than its ‘overwhelming’ 100-metre predecessor, when construction is complete in 2022, the E-ELT will still dwarf all existing telescopes of its kind.
At the heart of the £800million project will be a colossal 39.3metre-wide mirror – four times the width of the current record holder – made up of some 800 individual hexagonal segments.
E-ELT will view the universe in the visible and near-infrared spectrum and will be capable of producing images 15 times clearer than the Hubble Space Telescope. Its sensitivity means it will be possible to directly image rocky planets orbiting stars outside our solar system – possibly paving the way to the discovery of Earth-like alien worlds.
The observatory will be capture images of the very first stars and galaxies as they formed just a few million years after the Big Bang. Its imaging might will also be bent to task of figuring out the nature of black holes and the mysterious ‘dark matter’ that pervades the universe and ‘dark energy’ that seems to fueling the accelerating expansion of the universe.
The E-ELT will be built atop a 3,000 metre-tall mountain in the frigid Atacama desert of Chile where the virtual absence of any sort of moisture in the atmosphere will give the telescope views of the heavens unobscured by cloud.
Other telescopes on the drawing board are no less laconically named than the E-ELT. A planned telescope that will have a 30m-wide mirror will be called (you guessed it) the Thirty Metre Telescope and a colossal radio telescope array that will have a collecting area of a square kilometre will be (rather predictably) called the Square Kilometre Array.
Nor is the ‘does what it says on the tin’ naming mentality restricted to large telescopes. In Arizona there is a tiny telescope with an aperture little bigger than an expensive digital camera called the ‘Extremely Little Telescope’.
Fortunately, the discoveries that these telescopes will make will more than make up for the mundanity of their names.