The European Extremely Large Telescope E-ELT | Tomorrow Today - The Science Magazine | DW | 26.11.2012
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Tomorrow Today

The European Extremely Large Telescope E-ELT

Interview: Professor Dieter Breitschwerdt will join us in the studio to discuss the telescope further. He heads up the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Berlin's Technical University.

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DW: Prof. Breitschwerdt, the telescope E-ELT is really big. Apart from being able to collect large amounts of light - in fact I think it's 15 times more light than the last one, what else is revolutionary about it?

Dieter Breitschwerdt: Well I think this telescope would be a quantum leap in observational astronomy because we can look to very large distances, we can see very dim, very faint objects that hitherto could not be seen with the telescopes we have at the moment. And therefore we can reveal structures that are much more fainter and much smaller than we could have done previously and this will help us tremendously in our understanding of how the universe works.

Is this the way this technology is moving, it's getting bigger and bigger, does size really matter?

Size matters in astronomy I have to say, yes. Because there we can look much further than we could look before. We want to understand the beginnings of our universe, how everything came into being, the origin, how everything evolved. And for that we have to look very far back in time and this means that we have to see very faint structures and very small structures. And that really can be done only with the big, big telescopes - or if you do it from space you can do it with somewhat smaller telescopes but these are also more expensive, these missions.

They're very expensive and they take a long time to get underway as well. I mean they've been at this for years. And they're going to be at it for the next decade as well. Why is it taking so long?

Well it's a real challenge to make a telescope that big of course. You have to test all the various parts. This telescope - as we have heard - is constructed by 800 segments of smaller mirror parts, then they really have to switch together, then you have to build a dome which has to be stable at three thousand meters altitude and all that is really a tremendous challenge for the engineers.

Could this technology impact YOUR field of study?

I think so very much. My field is the evolution of galaxies, the interstellar media and also the star formation process, that's one of the big unsolved problems in astrophysics. And we want to look at early stages of star formation. They have been very much enshrouded by dust and we have not seen the details of the star formation process. And that we hope we can really reveal. Also this telescope works in the infrared so there are many molecules and star formation regions that we hope to observe.

So they're going to basically tell us more about our galaxies, more about stars. What about the big question, are we alone?

They will also tell us a lot about extra-solar planets, so planets that are around other stars, because one of the problems nowadays is to observe planets directly. We observe them indirectly by their gravitational interaction with the host star. But there's also the possibility of having direct imaging of a planet. But for that reason we have to observe very faint objects and we need to observe also much largers distances, again, to have larger samples of planets, to study these planets, and I think we will really discover more lower-mass earth-like planets than we have done so before.

Professor Breitschwerdt thank you very much for joining us here on Tomorrow Today, it was very interesting.

It was my pleasure, thank you very much.

(Interview: Anne O'Donnell)