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Scientists achieve 'world-first' for £900m telescope project

Oct 25 2013


Scientists polishing mirrors for a £900million telescope – the largest the world has ever seen – have successfully achieved a ground-breaking milestone.

Led by Project Manager Tony Fox-Leonard, the team at Glyndŵr University St Asaph have met ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) “extremely challenging” specifications for the European-Extremely Large Telescope project.

This giant eye on the sky will gather light from distant stars and galaxies, will be 39 metres in diameter, made of 798 segments and located on Mount Cerro Armazones in Chile, where it is set to gather 15 times more light than the largest telescopes around today.

With the support of collaborators, including Leicestershire-based technology company Zeeko, the St Asaph team met the ESO compliance figure of < 10 nanometres – over the full optical aperture, the first time it has ever been achieved using computer-operated machinery and which required both the development of a unique polishing process and metrology system.

Two ground-breaking objectives have been achieved; a world first in the ability to polish to a ‘straight’ edge on a hexagonal optic – led by Caroline Gray, and the acceptance by ESO of the only compliant Optical Test Tower – designed and led by Professor Paul Rees.

From their base on St Asaph Business Park, the group is now discussing collaboration with potential project partners across the globe with a view to win or participate in a £200m contract to produce all of the segments required for the telescope’s primary mirror.

The move reinforces the Wrexham-based University’s position as a leader in science, engineering and research, heavily linked with the private sector across north east Wales, and could also lead to hundreds of jobs being created when the mirrors are mass produced in the UK.

Project Manager Tony Fox-Leonard said: “Acceptance by ESO of a Glyndŵr University manufactured Prototype Segment as compliant to their technical specification for the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) marks the latest milestone and is a significant achievement for the optical manufacturing industry of the United Kingdom.

“The manufacture of this optic represents a return of large optics manufacturing capability to the UK after an absence of more than several generations.

“The specifications for the E-ELT primary mirror segments issued by ESO were recognised as severely challenging and bordering on the impossible by the optical component manufacturing industry.

“The additional requirement to manufacture hundreds of such optics over a timescale of seven or eight years has also led to a global reassessment of how large optics will be manufactured.”

He added: “It is a truly defining moment and a team effort which required the unwavering support of Glyndŵr University.

“It is a major development for Glyndŵr University St Asaph and shows our commitment to pioneering science and engineering in north east Wales.”

A spokesperson for ESO applauded this remarkable achievement, one many experts in the sector deemed impossible.

They said: “We would like to congratulate all of the team members there at Glyndŵr University St Asaph, your accomplishment is a useful contribution towards the success of the E-ELT Project.”

Earlier this year, Chancellor George Osborne committed £88m towards the construction of the E-ELT, to the delight of Glyndŵr’s vice chancellor and chief executive, Professor Michael Scott.

Prof Scott said the team at St Asaph deserves huge credit for achieving the ESO specification and said they will now look to build on that and contribute to procuring the eventual manufacturing contract for all of the mirrors required for the telescope, securing high technology jobs in Denbighshire.

“This is a remarkable achievement and one that shows just how hard the team at St Asaph have worked over the past few years to complete this stage of the ESO specification,” he said.

“It is a truly world class effort by a world leading group of scientists. This is also a world-first and one that everyone at Glyndŵr University is extremely proud of.”

Check out some stunning images from the world's largest telescope here.



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