Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on Friday inaugurated the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the world's largest optical telescope upon its completion. Located on a 3,000 metre-high mountain in the middle of the Atacama desert, E-ELT is expected to start operations as an integral part of the Paranal Observatory in 2024.
The telescope is said to be five times larger than many of its existing counterparts. With its enormous size, the E-ELT could change our perspective of the universe, according to its backers, who are optimistic about the performance of the telescope's primary mirror that can measure some 39 metres across.
The E-ELT is expected to help astronomers find exoplanets orbiting other stars while also refining their discoveries with its ability to locate smaller planets. The telescope is also capable of imaging larger planets and characterising their atmosphere, which would help astronomers better understand the possibility of life there.
In addition, the E-ELT project will also help astronomers better understand the formation and evolution histories of a representative sample of galaxies in the universe.
"The E-ELT will vastly advance astrophysical knowledge by enabling detailed studies of planets around other stars, the first galaxies in the Universe, super-massive black holes, and the nature of the Universe's dark sector," ESO said on its website.
Built in collaboration with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the E-ELT will gather 13 times more light than the largest optical telescopes existing today. It will also be able to provide images 16 times sharper than the ones captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Here in the Atacama Desert, one of the most symbolic places of the nation - and the driest place in the world - we are doing more than build a telescope, we are witnessing one of the greatest examples of what science and technology can achieve," Bachelet reportedly said on Friday.
The Atacama desert's dry atmosphere provides astronomers with an ideal condition to observe unknown distant objects in the universe. According to reports, nearly 70 percent of the world's astronomical infrastructure is expected to be located in the region by the 2020s.