ESO director general in Ireland to convince Govt to join organisation

8 Sep 2016

The ESO’s VISTA telescope. Image via G Hüdepohl (

As part of his visit to Ireland for a major Irish astronomical conference, the European Southern Observatory’s director general, Prof Tim de Zeeuw, has said membership of the organisation offers the “best possible option for Irish astronomy”.

The leading figure of the ESO is in Ireland for this year’s Irish National Astronomy Meeting (INAM), being held at University College Dublin (UCD) on 8 and 9 September to discuss their most recent astronomical discoveries, and plans for future projects.

Ahead of his talk on how his organisation is building the world’s largest telescopes, Prof de Zeeuw has spoken on Ireland’s current position outside of the ESO and the country’s possible future membership.

Ireland has been here before

As an astronomical organisation, the ESO is a body of inter-connected observatories stretching from Europe to South America, which contribute to some of the most spectacular views of our universe.

The organisation recently contributed to the major astronomical discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest exoplanet ever discovered.

Despite Ireland being a valued member of the European Space Agency (ESA) – resulting in the recent opening of a new launch pad for Irish space start-ups – successive Governments have appeared resistant to becoming a member of the ESO.

With another new Government in place this year, it has been confirmed that Prof de Zeeuw is to meet Minister of State for Training and Skills John Halligan, TD, to once again discuss possible membership.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Image via ESO/G. Coleman

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Image via ESO/G. Coleman

Membership is the ‘best possible option for Irish astronomy’

“I am very much looking forward to discussing potential Irish membership of ESO with Minister Halligan, and exploring the mutual benefits for Irish astronomy and ESO,” said Prof de Zeeuw.

“ESO would greatly welcome the participation of Irish industry in the programme, which includes the construction of the world-leading European Extremely Large Telescope.”

He continued: “It is my view that ESO offers an outstanding opportunity for Ireland. ESO is uniquely able to provide Irish astronomy world-leading astronomical infrastructure, and in that way, to be world-leading in astronomical discovery. I believe it is the best possible option for Irish astronomy.”

Speaking last year, Dr Brian Espey, an associate professor in physics at TCD, was quite vocal about how important it would be for Ireland to become the 17th European state of the ESO.

LOFAR, so good

“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.”

Outside of the ESO, Ireland has already joined one European astronomical collaboration, with the country’s involvement in International LOFAR Telescope (ILT) beginning last January.

With €1.4m in funding, a low frequency array telescope (LOFAR) is to be built in Birr, Co Offaly, to research the origin of the first galaxies, black holes and gas clouds seen at the birth of our universe.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic