Scientists just got one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos. With much fanfare, construction of the world's most powerful telescope kicked off on Friday in northern Chile, Reuters reports. When the $1.1 billion instrument goes online in 2024, proponents say it will revolutionize knowledge of the universe, enabling astronomers to study planets and stars in our own solar system and nearby galaxies in "unprecedented" detail, reports Phys.org. Five times larger than any contender in use today, with a mirror measuring 43 yards across, the appropriately named Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) "will produce discoveries that we simply cannot imagine," says Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the European Southern Observatory. He spoke at a ceremony at ESO headquarters in the Atacama Desert near the 10,000-feet peak of Cerro Armazones, where the ELT will rise.
The desert's dry climate, said to be the best on Earth for skygazing, has been luring astronomers for years. Among its selling points, the ELT will be the first telescope that can adjust for atmospheric turbulence, per Phys.org. It will also be able to snap 4,000 highly sharp images simultaneously in varying colors. From those pictures, scientists hope to gain clues into how space objects formed and evolved. They hope to pinpoint smaller planets and study the workings of larger ones, such as their atmospheres. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the project, per Reuters, "one of the greatest examples of the possibilities of science." (Hubble data suggests there are 2 trillion galaxies out there.)