The heart of the €1.1 billion (£900 million) European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is a mirror 39m in diameter that is designed to study planets beyond our solar system. One question it will explore is whether life exists there.
The optical and infrared telescope will also study galaxy formation and black holes, and try to understand dark matter and dark energy, substances that are thought to make up most of the Universe but have never been directly observed.
At a meeting on 11 June in Garching, Germany, six of the 14 member countries of the European Southern Observatory – Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland – gave their approval outright to proceed with the plans.
However construction cannot begin without confirmation of provisional votes by four countries – Belgium, Finland, Italy and the UK – which still need government approval for the project.
There can be no spending on substantial work at the site in Cerro Amazones, in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, until 90 per cent of the necessary funding has been pledged by the member states.
The ESO hopes to secure the funding and begin to approve industrial contracts over the coming year. It must stick to a tight schedule if it is to begin operations early next decade as it plans.
UK institutions and companies including Durham University, the University of Oxford and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Astronomy Technology Centre are already involved in developing several instruments for the proposed telescope.
At least €800 million in industrial contracts will be available through open competition within the ESO member states. The UK has already won about €10 million in work for the pre-construction phase.
“Our commitment to the E-ELT reflects its high priority in our science strategy, the world-leading position of the UK astronomy community, and the potential returns to UK industry,” said John Womersley, chief executive of STFC, from whose budget UK funding for the project will come.