All eyes on giant telescope project

An exhibition including two innovative videos is showcasing inspirational plans to build the largest optical telescope in the world – the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

The giant telescope is in an advanced stage of design by astronomers and industry across Europe, led by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The E-ELT, with a main mirror 42 metres in diameter, is expected to revolutionise our understanding of the Universe and its origins.

Professor Colin Cunningham of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, which is leading the partners involved in the UK part of this international project, explains “The European Extremely Large Telescope will be the world’s largest optical telescope. It will enable us to track down Earth-like planets around other stars in the ‘habitable zones’ where life could exist, and study the earliest, most distant galaxies in the Universe. It will provide vital inspiration for young scientists and engineers and could bring contracts worth 200M Euros to UK industry.”

Phil Harris, of OpTIC at Glyndwr University, which is developing technology to precision-polish mirrors for the telescope, explains “The telescope’s giant 42m diameter mirror will be made from nearly one thousand 1.4m hexagonal segments – which will be aligned as smoothly as 2mm high waves on the Atlantic Ocean. The detail it will see in the night sky is equivalent to spotting a bumble bee at John O’Groats from Land’s End”.

“Designing a Giant Eye on the Sky” is an exhibit at Seeing Further, the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, featuring an innovative dance video “Get the Hex”. The film project involved students from The Royal High School in Edinburgh working with filmmaker and dance choreographer team Craig and Joanne Thomson to create a piece representing the science behind the mirror in the giant telescope. Tom Bacciarelli, who teaches at The Royal High School, says “In the film, 60 of our students dance with silver hexagonal umbrellas to portray the giant mirror, Earth-like planets and galaxies. I hope other schools will be inspired the way we are.” The project used dance to explore science in line with Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence and will feature on GLOW, the intranet for Scottish schools. The project was co-ordinated by City of Edinburgh Council’s Creative Links team and funded by the Scottish Arts Council.

A second video at the exhibit is a 3D film animation about the telescope which shows that its giant dome is nearly as big as the London Eye which is outside the exhibition venue on the South Bank.


Get the Hex! Video

Image One:


Caption: A montage showing the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope next to the London Eye, which is just along the Thames from the exhibition at the South Bank Centre.

Credit: ESO and Chiara Bello

Image Two:


Caption: Anna Butchert, a student at The Royal High School in Edinburgh, with a silver hexagonal umbrella as part of a dance video portraying the giant 42 metre mirror on the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope.

Credit: Craig Thomson


Professor Colin Cunningham
UK Astronomy Technology Centre, STFC
0131 668 8223
07718 737171

Dr Isobel Hook
Oxford University
07739 174455

Dan Hillier
UK Astronomy Technology Centre, STFC
0131 668 8406
07821 800356


Notes for editors

Seeing Further – The Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2010:

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition showcases cutting edge research in science and engineering from across the UK. The Exhibition runs from Friday 25 June to Sunday 4 July 2010. The event is FREE and open to the public.

UK involvement in the E-ELT programme:
At a total construction cost of around 1 billion Euros, the E-ELT will be a major construction project for European industry over the next 10 years. The UK is a member of ESO, via the Science and Technology Facilities Council STFC (, and expects to play a leading role in both the telescope construction and the development of the advanced instruments required to exploit the exquisite capabilities of the E-ELT.
The UK ELT Programme is led from a project office based at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and Oxford University, by Project Director Professor Colin Cunningham and Project Scientist Professor Isobel Hook. Teams from Durham and Oxford Universities and the STFC’s UK ATC and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory are working on instrument and adaptive optics developments for the project. Teams including University College London, the University of the West of Scotland, Glasgow University, the UK ATC and industrial partners are developing deformable mirrors for adaptive optics. Qinetiq, E2V and Selex-Galileo are developing detectors.
The UK consortium building prototype mirror segments for ESO is led by OpTIC Glyndwr, and was brought about by the academic and industrial partners of the EPSRC-funded Basic Technology Project on Ultra Precision Surfaces and the Ultra Precision and Structured Surfaces (UPS2) Integrated Knowledge Centre.
“ Designing a Giant Eye on the Sky”:
The partners and funders for this exhibit are: Chiara Bello Design, Design London, Durham University, the European Southern Observatory, Oxford University, OPTICON, OpTIC/Glyndwr University, the Royal Academy of Engineering, The Royal Astronomical Society, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA), UPS2 Cranfield, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

Dance video project partners:
The Royal High School in is a state comprehensive school where many eminent scientists, artists and academics have been educated, including Alexander Graham Bell and Sir Walter Scott.
Craig Thomson - artist, photographer and film maker Craig has worked over the last twenty years as an established artist, designer, photographer and film-maker.
Joanne Thomson - Freelance Cultural Co-ordinator for Dance (Midlothian Council) and dance development artist.
City of Edinburgh Creative Links Team is part of Arts and Learning, Children and Families, City of Edinburgh Council.
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre
European Southern Observatory:
ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.