Catalonia university participates in construction of world’s largest telescope

UPC technological innovation center collaborates with IDOM to build telescope in Chile desert

An artist's impression of the completed telescope (courtesy of UPC Technology Center)
An artist's impression of the completed telescope (courtesy of UPC Technology Center) / Angus Clelland

Angus Clelland | Barcelona

June 3, 2022 12:02 PM

The Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) is working together with engineering and architecture multinational company IDOM to construct the world’s largest ground-based optical and near-infrared telescope, to be built at an altitude over 3,000m in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

One of the goals is to detect and study Earth-like planets around other stars, meaning it could become the first telescope to find evidence of life outside our Solar System. 

The project, promoted by the European Southern Observatory research organization, is expected to be completed in 2027.

It is the UPC’s Center for Sensors, Instruments and Systems Development, otherwise known as CD6, which will be working on the design of the intricate optical system used to calibrate the telescope’s 39-meter main mirror, M1.

The telescope will utilize a further four mirrors to provide images 15 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The five mirrors, named M1 to M5, will have different shapes, sizes and roles. M1, a concave mirror nearly 40m in diameter and 69m of curvature, will contain thousands of highly sophisticated components that will allow it to collect light from the night sky and reflect it onto the secondary mirror. It is made up of 798 individual hexagonal segments, each about five centimeters thick, about 1.5 meters in diameter and weighs 250kg.

M2, in turn, reflects light onto M3, which transmits it to the flat adaptive M4, which corrects the distortions caused by atmospheric turbulence and sends the light onto M5, which stablizes the image to be sent to the instruments.

The dome

A giant telescope requires a giant dome to house it. In this case, the 80-meter high, 88-meter wide dome will also need to provide protection from the harsh elements in the Atacama.

The upper part of the dome will rotate to allow the telescope to point in any direction.

The telescope is estimated to weigh about 3,700 tons once fully operational in 2027.