Ireland will join ESO in 2018 after hard-fought campaign

11 Oct 2017

Artist’s rendering of the ELT in operation. Image: ESO

The increased fund allocation for innovation in Budget 2018 means Ireland will finally join the ESO.

The issue of whether or not Ireland would join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been raised time and again by Irish astronomers.

Buoyed by allocated capital for innovation in Budget 2018, Ireland will now join the ESO and benefit from a body of interconnected observatories spanning the globe, enabling new discoveries.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation said the benefits of ESO membership are far-reaching, including the creation of skills and jobs in areas such as data analytics, photonics, imaging, detectors, computing and microelectronics. It will also allow Irish companies to compete for ESO contracts.

Dr Sheila Gilheany, policy adviser for the Institute of Physics in Ireland, said: “Ireland’s membership of ESO will now allow physicists here to work with other cutting-edge scientists worldwide to understand our universe, and bring the fruit of that research back to Ireland to support education and develop our business capacity in many high-tech fields.

“Astrophysics, in particular, is a key driver of science interest and innovation. To support this, Irish scientists and engineers need access to the best research facilities, and this access brings with it the benefits of spin-off technology, contracts and jobs.”

New opportunities for Ireland’s astronomers spoke to young astronomer Cormac Larkin last month about why Ireland joining ESO was so crucial. He said: “There’s a phrase that says, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, and we’re the only one in western Europe with a large astronomical community that isn’t a member of ESO.

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to spend two years training with researchers in Armagh, so I’ve had access to telescopes there and I’ve used them but without that, my research that I won all those awards for would be unproven and theoretical. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

As a member, Ireland will be able to offer researchers the chance to compete at the highest international levels, aligning its research strategies with those of Europe while providing curious students with exciting training opportunities.

ESO has been in existence since 1962, and is currently building the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. First light for the ELT is currently planned for 2024, and it is expected to be essential for the advancement of astrophysical knowledge.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects