What does Irish ESO membership mean to our budding astronomers?


29 Nov 2017107 Shares

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PhD student Lána Salmon admiring the Milky Way at Teide Observatory in Tenerife during an undergraduate field trip. Image: Lána Salmon/Dr Antonio Martin-Carrillo

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What does it mean for Irish astronomy now that we are a member of ESO? UCD PhD student Lána Salmon writes that we will now start to catch up to international peers.

For more than 70 years, Ireland played host to the largest telescope in the world. The construction of the Leviathan telescope at Birr Castle in 1845 marked the start of Ireland’s contribution to the worldwide astronomical community.

Since then, Ireland has continued to cultivate a strong community of successful astrophysicists whose discoveries are supported by membership of international scientific collaborations.

After many years of campaigning, it was announced during Budget 2017 that Ireland was joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Young researchers in Ireland, like myself, are ready to avail of the many opportunities that our membership will bring, including getting to use the largest telescopes in the world again.

Scientists are stronger together. This is the principle behind large scientific organisations such as ESO.

Opening a window to the universe

Founded in 1962, ESO provides astronomers in European member states with access to the world’s best telescopes covering the southern skies. The state-of-the-art telescopes and research facilities are situated at three sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.

With the current construction of the largest telescope in the world, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), ESO’s scientific impact will continue to grow, and Ireland gets to contribute to the future of European astrophysics.

As a young researcher, I have seen the benefits of collaborating with ESO. The recent discovery of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave source was aided by data taken with ESO telescopes as part of the ePESSTO project.

Irish scientists from University College Dublin (UCD), including myself, collaborated with the ePESSTO project to observe and analyse the light from this event.

This analysis concluded that some of the heaviest elements in the universe are created in collisions of neutron stars, helping us to understand the origins of elements such as gold and platinum.

This collaboration has greatly aided my research at the very beginning of my career, allowing me to work with international and world-renowned scientists and resources.

Attendees at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting 2017, at which astronomers gave one last push for Ireland to join ESO. Image: Lána Salmon

A long struggle

Being a member state of ESO will mean that this type of groundbreaking research will be commonplace for young Irish researchers in years to come.

The case for Ireland to join ESO has been fought by Irish astrophysicists for many years. As an undergraduate student, I became involved in the ‘Ireland for ESO’ campaign. The Institute of Physics published a report supporting this campaign, outlining the financial and scientific benefits of joining ESO.

In response, the UCD Physics Society started a petition to join ESO, which gained more than 1,700 signatures. I delivered those signatures to the then Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English, TD, in December 2015.

In September 2016, ESO director general Tim de Zeeuw visited Ireland to express his support for the campaign.

One year later, after much more campaigning, the Government announced that Ireland will be joining ESO in 2018. Joining ESO will involve a once-off €14m fee and a €2m annual membership fee, and the fruits of this investment are far-reaching.

Being a member state of ESO provides young researchers like myself with incredible research opportunities. Young Irish researchers will now be able to apply for fellowships at ESO facilities. These researchers will be funded to complete all or part of their PhD or postdoctoral programmes at the best telescopes in the world.

These fellowships will propel Irish astrophysicists to the forefront of the international research community. Irish scientists will be well equipped, providing Ireland with a host of experienced and skilled astronomers and astrophysicists, and educating a new generation of researchers in an international context.

E-ELT2

An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope set for first light in 2024. Image: ESO

Ireland is finally catching up

Additionally, Irish astronomers will now have access to these world-class telescopes through a competitive proposal process. Until now, in order to apply for time on these telescopes, Irish scientists would need to collaborate with scientists in ESO member states to submit these proposals.

Irish scientists will now independently be able to vie for precious time on these telescopes, and travel to these telescopes will be funded.

International astrophysics has advanced greatly since the construction of the Leviathan telescope in 1845. By joining ESO, Ireland is catching up. Optical telescopes have moved from sites like Birr Castle to the optimal, cloudless regions of ESO facilities in Chile, and Irish scientists must follow.

In funding Ireland’s membership of ESO, the Government recognises that Irish scientists must seize the international resources available to them.

The welcome announcement that Ireland is to join ESO will return Ireland to its former glory as a frontrunner in astronomy, using and engineering the best telescopes in the world to train and cultivate a cohort of skilled researchers whose groundbreaking work will be a reflection of the talent Ireland offers to the world.

Irish researchers like myself are ready and eager to contribute once Ireland joins ESO in 2018, and I am excited to see the results of joining this hugely beneficial organisation.

By Lána Salmon

Lána Salmon is an Irish Research Council-funded PhD student in the UCD Space Science Group and team member on the EIRSAT-1 mission building Ireland’s first satellite.