Official joining of ESO is a landmark moment for Irish astronomy

26 Sep 2018

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) gaze up at the star-filled night sky, in anticipation of the work that lies ahead. Image: José Francisco Salgado

Ireland will officially become a member of the ESO on 1 October, giving it access to the world’s most powerful telescopes.

It was almost a year ago that the Irish Government listened to the arguments made by Irish astronomers and announced its intention to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

In joining it, Irish astronomers and physicists will have much greater access to some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, used by an Irish research team to photograph the most detailed photo ever of another star.

Future Human

Now, both the Irish Government and ESO have announced the formal signing of the agreement today (26 September), making the country the 16th member of the organisation.

It is envisaged that over the course of the next 10 years, Ireland will spend €3.5m per year as part of its membership requirement.

Signed by ESO director general Xavier Barcons and Ireland’s Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan, TD, the agreement will see Ireland officially join the research body on 1 October.

Ireland’s representative

As an international body, the Government is required to appoint an Irish representative on the ESO Council. To that end, it announced the appointment of Prof Tom Ray from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) to the position.

“Membership of the ESO is a wonderful development for Irish astronomy and is hugely significant for future generations of Irish scientists,” Ray said following his appointment.

“It means we now have access to world-class facilities and we can lead programmes on such topics as the physics of the gas and dust in our galaxy, the birth of stars and planets, the interaction of black holes with exotic stars in binary systems, and the formation of the first galaxies.”

Ireland’s accession to membership of the ESO comes at an opportune time as the organisation continues to construct its Extremely Large Telescope. When it achieves first light in 2024, the telescope will be able to generate images 16 times sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Speaking with RTÉ News, Halligan added that he envisions similar results to what was seen after Ireland joined the European Space Agency with the creation of jobs and businesses being connected with advanced research.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic