STFC funding paves the way for UK leadership in E-ELT instrumentation

£3.5 million in funding from STFC over the next two years has put UK astronomers in a strong position to take a leading role in the development of key instruments on the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The E-ELT is planned to be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world and will be tens of times more sensitive than any current ground-based optical telescope. The project is currently awaiting final approval for construction to begin.

It is expected that partners in the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be asked in December 2011 to take a decision on whether to start construction of the project. This preliminary funding from STFC, agreed after peer review, means crucial design and technology work is already underway. This will allow the UK to lead the development of one of the two `first light' instruments on E-ELT, while positioning two other teams to play major roles in delivering the first generation instrument suite. This significantly enhances the opportunities for UK industrial involvement, in terms of direct contracts to work on the project and through ownership of vital technological know-how.

Professor Colin Cunningham from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), who is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office, said: "This funding from STFC will allow the UK to put itself in the best possible position to develop key instruments for the E-ELT with its international partners. The fact that ESO has already highly rated the early designs for these instruments is testament to the world-leading expertise of our scientists and engineers. We are looking forward to turning these designs into exciting new capabilities for the astronomy research community."

The E-ELT will allow astronomers to make huge strides toward our understanding of the first objects in the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy (thought to make up most of our Universe, but as yet not directly observed or understood), and planets outside our Solar System, including rocky planets in `habitable zones' around nearby stars.

The UK took part in successful Phase A studies for instruments called HARMONI, EAGLE, OPTIMOS-EVE, EPICS and METIS. This new funding allows further design towards a first light E-ELT instrument based on HARMONI. It also funds continued studies in the UK that will allow teams to bid for construction of the other instruments that will follow. These will ultimately provide a suite of mutually-complementary instruments for observations of the faintest planets, stars, and galaxies that are well beyond the reach of existing telescopes.

An important element of the funded programme is a project called CANARY on STFC's William Herschel Telescope in the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes in La Palma. CANARY will prototype key concepts in adaptive optics, particularly those required for the EAGLE instrument. Adaptive optics allows astronomers to correct the blurring induced in astronomical images by the Earth's atmosphere. STFC’s funding, combined with that from French partners, will enable innovative tests with CANARY, including sending four laser beams into the sky simultaneously to create artificial stars.

This UK instrument programme will be delivered in close collaborations between Durham University, the University of Oxford, and STFC's UK ATC and RAL Space, together with leading international institutes.

Professor Isobel Hook, the UK E-ELT Project Scientist from the University of Oxford, said: "This new financial commitment from the STFC means that UK astronomers will have access to the earliest scientific results from this revolutionary telescope - an exciting prospect that will be the culmination of many years of hard work by the instrument teams".

Notes to editors

Further information on the UK role in the E-ELT is available at:

http://www.eelt.org.uk

Further information on the HARMONI instrument is available at:

http://astroweb1.physics.ox.ac.uk/instr/HARMONI/

Further information on the EAGLE instrument is available at:

http://eagle.oamp.fr/spip

Further information on the OPTIMOS-EVE instrument is available at:

http://www.optimos-eve.eu

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Further Information

Durham University

Durham University is a World Top-100 university with a global reputation in research and education across the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences. It is England’s third oldest university and Durham has been a leading centre of scholarship for a thousand years.

At the University’s heart is a UNESCO World Heritage site which it owns, together with Durham Cathedral. Durham is consistently ranked in the top few universities in the UK and the leading university in the North. Its residential Collegiate system enables the University to recruit some of the most talented and motivated students from around the world to develop transferable skills such as leadership, alongside academic excellence, which place Durham graduates in the World Top-15 for global student employability.

The University of Oxford

The University of Oxford is repeatedly ranked as one of the top ten universities in the world. Oxford has more world-leading academics (rated 4* in the 2008 national Research Assessment Exercise) than any other UK university. Oxford also has the highest number of world-leading or internationally excellent (4* or 3*) academics in the UK. It consistently has the highest research income from external sponsors of any UK university. More at: www.ox.ac.uk

ESO

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 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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 two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light.

ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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