World’s biggest telescope has dullest name

European astronomers have named a site where they will build the world’s biggest telescope – and the one with possibly the dullest name. The best officials could come up with for their powerful new eye on the sky in Chile is the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT.

Site for the Extremely Large Telescope
Picture: The superb skies over the peak picked for E-ELT are photographed during site-testing. Credit: ESO.

It follows their last major project – four instruments working together to which they gave the unimaginative name the Very Large Telescope.

And it will be built instead of an even bigger instrument that they planned to dub the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope. At least that had a rather nice nocturnal acronym – OWL.

Yesterday astronomers announced that the mighty new £875 million telescope, with a light-collecting mirror 42 metres (138ft ) wide, will be built on a mountain peak called Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It is due to be completed by 2018.

The Extremely Large Telescope will revolutionise our understanding of the universe by looking back in time towards the Big Bang. It will detect supermassive black holes and may spot Earth-like planets around other stars that could be home to alien life.

Yet its name seems to have been dreamed up by a committee that is typical of European bureaucracy, made up of reps from the UK, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Previous giant UK telescopes have been named after inspirational scientists including William Herschel, who first spotted Uranus, and Isaac Newton. NASA named their most famous space telescope after Edwin Hubble who recognise there were other galaxies beyond our Milky Way.

The new E-ELT, which will observe in visual and infrared light, will be part of the European Southern Observatory, whose desert HQ in the driest part of the Earth was considered exciting enough for Hollywood to film Bond movie Quantum of Solace there. It has not rained for 2,000 years.

E-ELT will begin operating in 2018 only 20km (12.5 miles) from other telescopes run by ESO. Chile was picked again over a rival bid from Spain to host the new observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Many Jupiter-sized exoplanets have already been found by ESo from Chile. One may even have been photographed by the VLT. Other major discoveries have included pinpointing the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy.

ESO’s press officer himself rejoices under the splendidly appropriate name of Henri Boffin. I asked Henri why the names Europe gives its telescopes are so unimaginative. He told me: “I am afraid I do not have an easy answer to your pertinent question. My hope is that the E-ELT will get a nice name some day.”

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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