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Delight as construction of ESO telescope is given green light


Scientists can reach for the stars after construction of the world’s largest telescope was approved.

The news is a major boost to Glyndŵr University, where a team from the National Facility for Ultra Precision Surfaces has been successfully polishing mirrors for the £900million European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) project.

Due for completion in 2024, the giant eye on the sky will be sited in Chile and was given the green light by European Southern Observatory (ESO) Council members on Friday.

The group of scientists and engineers at Glyndŵr’s OpTIC Centre in St Asaph are leading the race to polish the mirrors and are rapidly approaching completion of the third prototype segment.

Earlier this year, the group received global acclaim for polishing the 1.5metre optic down to just 7.5nanometres – which equates to around the size of a haemoglobin module – using the only test facility certified compliant by ESO.

That was the best measurement ever managed in the UK, and the first time such a feat has ever been achieved using computer-operated machinery, coupled with the university’s unique polishing process and metrology system.

Glyndŵr University looks set to achieve even greater success in the coming weeks, according to project manager Tony Fox-Leonard (pictured with Caroline Gray).

He said: “For the telescope to have received formal approval from ESO is a huge step; it’s great news for us.

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

“The ability to polish right to the edge of the mirror is a world-first, nobody has done it before, but our team at the OpTIC Centre achieved that and are now looking to improve on the high standards they set themselves.”

Tony added: “They have shown we have the capabilities to lead the world in this field and are putting the university on the map in terms of research – it’s an amazing achievement.”

Mick Card, Head of Business Development and Funding, described the news as “an early Christmas present” for the world-leading Denbighshire facility.

“The commitment of the ESO member states is a vote of confidence in the quality of the Welsh engineering, manufacturing process development and metrology delivered by Glyndŵr University,” said Mick.

“News that the telescope is on course to be completed by 2024, and that we are so close to reaching yet another incredible milestone is an early Christmas present for everyone here at the OpTIC Centre.”

He added: “As a result of these achievements we are seeing large growth in demand from international science programmes and multi-national businesses for our space related engineering and optics manufacturing expertise.

“We have already identified pan-Wales strengths in the design, manufacture and testing of instrumentation, robotics, control systems, optics and mounting systems for space applications and are proud to be working with WASP (Welsh Academic Space Partnership) partners to deliver collaborations, facilities and projects that capitalise upon this.”

The move by ESO 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.

Once completed, the E-ELT will gather light from distant stars and galaxies, 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.

Work has already begun on blasting away part of the 3,000m mountain’s peak to make way for the new observatory.

Tim de Zeeuw, ESO's director general, said the decision taken by Council (the organisation’s chief governing body) means it can now be built.

“Construction work for the E-ELT is now funded and can proceed according to plan," he said.

“There is already a lot of progress in Chile on the summit of Armazones, and the next few years will be very exciting.”



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