Backing for huge telescope project.
THE new Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan is backing Denbighshire's bid to secure a massive, near-pounds 200m contract to make huge mirrors for the world's biggest optical telescope.
She saw work underway on seven prototype mirrors being painstakingly made at the OpTIC Technium, St Asaph Business Park, at a cost of pounds 4.5m.
Ms Gillan had asked to tour OpTIC and to see the mirrors project as part of her first official visit to North Wales since taking up the top Welsh Office post in the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
During the visit to the high tech research and development and business incubation centre she remarked that she had known it was an exciting project but had not realised its sheer scale.
The European Extremely Large Telescope will be almost the size of Wembley stadium and will cost around pounds 1bn.
It will be built high in the Andes mountains in South America where the air is clearer.
But the telescope - which will be able to see more distantly and therefore effectively further back in time than any comparable scientific instrument - is not expected to be completed until 2018 Wrexham's Glyndwer University, which now runs OpTIC, hopes to hear by the end of the year whether it has won the work to build the 1,148 giant hexagonal mirrors needed for the telescope.
Speaking after Ms Gillan's visit, Professor Mike Scott, university vice chancellor, said the seven prototype mirrors had now been fitted into a laser test tower at the St Asaph Business Park site ready for delicate measurements.
He revealed that work on the project had been delayed for three weeks because the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud had prevented three American scientists from flying the Atlantic to help with the measurement technology.
Eventually, OpTIC team members were able to surmount the obstacle and tackle the measurements themselves.
The sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone has, so far, not impacted on the Extremely Large Telescope project.
OpTIC is in a race with a French competitor to make the segmented prototype mirrors to the necessary tolerances and at a competitive price.
It is a race that, if won by the Welsh centre, would see the creation of a new factory in the region to manufacture the 1,000-plus mirrors needed for the telescope. A site for such a facility has yet to be firmly identified but people connected with the project say it would create hundreds of new jobs in the region. Ms Gillan was appointed as Secretary of State a fortnight ago as part of Prime Minister David Cameron''s new cabinet.
She was accompanied on her visit to OpTIC by Welsh Office minister David Jones, Clwyd West MP.
Secretary of state for Wales Cheryl Gillan and David Jones MP with Dr John Mitchel at Optic Technium, St Asaph