How much would it cost Ireland to join ESO?

9 Sep 2016

Comet Lovejoy visits La Silla. Image via P. Horálek/ESO

Despite a number of previous meetings with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Ireland has been reluctant to join the influential astronomical organisation, but why? We spoke with its director-general, Prof Tim de Zeeuw, to find out.

With Ireland’s membership of the European Space Agency (ESA) secured for a number of years now, our avoidance to join ESO is seen as something of a mystery among astronomers in Ireland.

As one of the largest centres of advanced astronomy in the world, membership of the European organisation gives member states unparalleled access to its array of telescopes across the globe, many of which far out-perform what Ireland can muster.

Talks with Government begin again

For years now, successive Irish governments have toyed with the idea of joining ESO. Yet, for seemingly unknown reasons, they all refrained from putting pen to paper on any agreement.

One person familiar with these discussions is the current ESO director-general, Prof Tim de Zeeuw who is in Ireland this week to give a talk at this year’s Irish National Astronomy Meeting (INAM), discussing recent astronomical discoveries and plans for future projects.

Speaking with, de Zeeuw admits he is still unsure as to why previous formal discussions broke down since he first visited the country in an official capacity in 2009.

He admits the timing of this was not ideal given that it was at the height of the worldwide financial crisis that deeply affected Ireland, as many in the country know.

But now, having seemingly gotten through the worst of our economic woes and with a new Government now in place, de Zeeuw revealed that discussions are once again taking place.

Tim de Zeeuw telescope

Prof Tim de Zeeuw during a visit to the Paranal Observatory in August 2008. Image via ESO

“I met with the senior officials from the [Irish Government] and it was a very constructive meeting,” he said.

“They fully understand the strong support that astronomers, industry and the academies get with Irish membership of ESO and they’re trying to find ways to make it happen.”

Another meeting is now scheduled with a formal introductory submission from the Government planned for early October.

The cost for Ireland

As cost is the likeliest reason for the Government getting cold feet about joining ESO, a question asked by many within the Irish astronomical community centres on how much it would actually cost us.

Breaking it down, de Zeeuw explained that ESO member states are expected to provide an annual subscription determined by the size of their economy compared to the economies of the other member states. For Ireland, this would be significantly lower than many of the larger ESO member states, de Zeeuw said, with our economy measuring 1pc that of our larger neighbours.

Aside from the additional contribution of €1.8m per year, there is an ‘entry fee’ for countries – typically costing somewhere between €13m and €14m.

“It is not a small amount of money, but not a large amount either,” de Zeeuw said.

ESO laser and light

Using the glow from their mobile phones, ESO staff took advantage of long-exposure photography to draw the letters ‘ESO’ in light, while standing in front of one of their observatories. Image via ESO/M Kornmesser

‘Irish astronomy is on a par with the other ESO members’

“The partnership with ESO is not just to give astronomers observing time, but it is to give high-tech institutes and industry involved in the construction and maintenance of the structures we build,” said de Zeeuw.

Given this is not the first time that ESO has approached Ireland about membership, its director-general has spoken with admiration about Ireland’s contribution to astronomy and what it could bring to the organisation.

“There is no doubt that the quality of Irish astronomy is on a par with the other ESO member states,” he said.

“That is why it’s good for ESO if they join. But it’s good for them to make use of the telescopes we already have and they would contribute to further enhancements of our programme.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic