The European Extremely Large Telescope Just Got a 10% Budget Boost, Now Costing $1.5 Billion

Funding is an extremely important aspect of any large-scale science project.  The whims of financial controllers can greatly expand or completely sink the efforts of hundred or thousands of other workers.  Many times, funding announcements for large scientific projects focus on cuts or “cost-savings” which hobble the eventual end system they are trying to build.  But recently the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced it had actually increased the budget for the under-construction Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) by 10%.

The total cost of the project has now reached €1.3 billion ($1.59 USD).  Originally approved and funded in 2012, construction of the actual observatory started in 2014 at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.  The construction relies on a consortium of contractors, both from the ESO’s funding nations as well as Chile itself.  In fact, 80% of the budget from the project goes directly to those contractors.

It has been a bumpy road for those contractors though, as the original funding for the projects had a two phase approach.  The first “Phase I” part of the project would result in a fully function ELT, though it would be significantly less functional than originally envisioned.  A second phase, with its own pot of money, would then be used to bring the telescopes up to the specification that was originally laid out for it.

More recently, the ELT underwent what ESO calls a “total cost exercise”, which monitors the project to ensure that it is living up to expectations. As part of this exercise, the ESO Council (the organization’s funding body) approved a 10% project budget increase that will achieve the goals originally laid out in Phase II of the plan.  These improvements include atmospheric monitoring equipment, more laser guided star trackers, and a whole new technical outbuilding in nearby Armazones.

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