Budding Irish astrophysicists can gain enormously if Ireland joins ESO

24 Mar 2015

Birr Telescope in Co Offaly, once the largest in the world for a period of 72 years

An event being held in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is hoping to encourage the Irish Government to consider membership to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to give budding Irish astrophysicists a chance to excel.

The event, known as the ESO Industry Day, is a collective of representatives from the Irish Government and Irish industry, as well as those within the ESO coming to discuss Ireland’s entry into the organisation which gives researchers on a European-wide basis access to a vast array of measuring equipment to further research for education as well as advanced astrophysics research.

Rather than just pertaining to the interests of one university however, it is a collaboration between almost all of the major universities in the country and will be hoping this Thursday, 26 March to convince the Irish Government to make the investment.

Key to the ESO’s future plan is the Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) which is part of a huge €1bn investment to construct the telescope measuring 39m across which could give researchers unprecedented access to distant galaxies and exoplanets.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Dr Brian Espey, associate professor in physics at TCD and one of the event’s organisers could not speak more highly of its potential, “It’s possible with the standard of equipment on the new telescope to actually see galaxies moving over the timespan of a few years instead of getting a reasonable assumption through measurements, which is so mind-blowing it’s almost going to be impossible to comprehend the level of accuracy.”

Time is of the essence

However, none of this can be achieved, he says, without the Government’s go-ahead to sign ourselves up to the ESO as soon as possible due to the fact that a country’s fee for entering it is determined by a set percentage of that country’s GDP which, if Ireland were to join soon, would be lower now than when the economy improves more-so.

“If we go in later,” explained Dr Espey, “you’re also buying in to the existing infrastructure so after this €1bn investment, it will be even more expensive to be involved.”

Aside from the financial costs, Espey believes the importance of this event in encouraging the Government to apply for access is vital for bringing Ireland back to the forefront of astrophysics in Europe.

Due to austerity cutbacks, Irish astrophysicists have had no access to ground-based space telescope equipment since 2003, despite the number of students looking to move into the subject increasingly annually.

Demand for astrophysics education increasing

Speaking of the interest sparked during the recent solar eclipse, Dr Espey said, “The turnout for the eclipse was a good indication in the interest in [astrophysics], but there’s nowhere for this interest to actually go. Even on the junior cycle curriculum, there’s an astronomy strand but what are you going to do with it? You try to hook them in and then tell them there’s no path?”

While on the topic of the growth of astrophysics in Ireland, Dr Espey was able to say that from his perspective in TCD, the growth of STEM has been successful with regard to reaching a balance between genders with just under half of the graduating class last year being female, something unseen before in what are defined as the ‘hard sciences’.

After all, Ireland has had a long and illustrious history when it comes to observing the cosmos.

“If we are to take our place in the international community, and to provide lofty goals for our students, we should be engaging more with the international community in projects such as ESO,” said Dr Espey. “If we don’t do this, we also turn our back on our culture, remembering that the Birr Leviathan – the biggest telescope in the world for 72 years – was completed at the time of the Great Famine when times were even tougher.”

Image of Birr Telescope via Eugenio Vacca/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic