British Involvement with ESO

The UK became the 10th member of ESO, when it joined on 8 July 2002 (eso0218).

The UK currently contributes 16.4% of ESO’s revenue, worth 26 640 000 EUR.

Discoveries by British astronomers using ESO telescopes

The UK has lead and contributed towards a considerable amount of astronomical discoveries with the use of ESO telescopes in the past few years.

  • In December 2011, Philip Dufton and Paul Dunstall at Queen’s University Belfast led an international team of astronomers to discover the fastest rotating star at the time. They used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. (eso1147)
  • In July 2015, Roberto Maiolino at the University of Cambridge led an international team which witnessed the assembly of galaxies in the early Universe for the first time. They used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in order to discover the most distant clouds of star forming gas known at the time. (eso1530)
  • In August 2015, Simon Driver at the University of St Andrews led an international team which chartered the slow death of the Universe. They studied more than 200 000 galaxies in order to derive the amount of energy being generated within a large portion of space, finding that it is about half of what it was two billion years ago. They used ESO’s VISTA and VST survey telescopes. (eso1533)
  • In November 2015, Christopher Manser and Boris Gänsicke at the University of Warwick led an international team to study the interaction between a dead, white dwarf and an asteroid. They used the VLT to map out the structure of the asteroid remains; a glowing gaseous structure and the result of being ripped apart by immense tidal forces. (eso1544)
  • In June 2016, Leigh Fletcher at the University of Leicester led a team to obtain spectacular infrared images of Jupiter with the VLT, in preparation for the arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (eso1623)
  • In July 2016, Tom Marsh and Boris Gänsicke at the University of Warwick led an international team used the VLT to make follow-up observations of a new type of exotic binary star. The system comprises a rapidly spinning white dwarf, unleashing high energy particles towards its red dwarf companion, and causing the system to pulse dramatically every 1.97 minutes. (eso1627)
  • In August 2016, Guillem Anglada-Escudé at Queen Mary University of London led an international team to find an Earth-mass planet orbiting around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth. (eso1629). This work was highlighted by the Pale Red Dot campaign, an outreach project with the aim to provide the public with a unique real-time view of how science is performed. The campaign won the Research Impact category at the Guardian University Awards 2017. (ann17013)
  • In September 2016, Jim Geach at the University of Hertfordshire led an international team to discover the true nature of rare objects known as Lyman-alpha Blobs. With ALMA and the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the VLT, they found that at the heart of one of these objects lie two galaxies forming stars at a rate of more than 100 times that of the Milky Way, which are lighting up their surroundings. (eso1632)
  • In March 2017, Nicolas Laporte and Richard Ellis at University College London led a European team to detect a huge mass of glowing galactic stardust, attributed to the remnants of dead stars. At the time, it was the most distant object ever observed by ALMA. (eso1708)
  • In March 2017, Roberto Maiolino and Helen Russell at the University of Cambridge led a European team to discover that stars are born within the winds of powerful jets blasting out from supermassive black holes. Never before have stars been known to form in such extreme environments. (eso1710). MUSE and X-shooter on the VLT were used. (eso1710)

Additional Involvement

The exhibit, “Designing a Giant Eye on the Sky”, was featured at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in 2010. Featured were two innovative videos, one of which was a dance video, “Get the Hex”, involving pupils from The Royal High School in Edinburgh. (ann1033)

In 2013, an exhibition, Visions of the Universe, was held at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibit featured photographs taken by ESO’s telescopes. (ann13053)

Several British organisations are also linked to ESO as Outreach Partners. This includes the Bayfordbury Observatory, University of Hertfordshire, and the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London.

Number of British astronomers and staff working at ESO

There are currently fifty-one British nationals employed at ESO or working as students. Forty are in Garching and eleven are in Santiago in Chile.

British contributions to ALMA

As a significant partner in the project, the UK has wide expertise in millimetre and submillimetre wave astronomy. Several UK hardware and science groups built on previous experience in their involvement with ALMA.

User support for the UK community is be provided through the UK ALMA Regional Centre (ARC), based at the University of Manchester. The ARC provides guidance on proposal preparation, advanced data reduction and interpretation techniques.

British contributions to the Paranal Observatory

The British company, e2v (now an international company known as Teledyne e2v) based in Chelmsford in the UK, has been providing CCDs for ESO telescopes for many years. Many VLT instruments use their technology: SPHERE (eso0922); CCD image sensors (4k x 4k) on MUSE; and the forthcoming ESPRESSO instrument. e2v also have sensors installed on NGTS. (eso1502)

KMOS, the K-band Multi Object Spectrograph, is a second-generation instrument installed on Unit Telescope 1 of the VLT, completed in 2012. KMOS uses integral-field spectroscopy in the infrared to study galaxies at high redshifts. The high-tech instrument with 24 cryogenic robotic arms was built by a collaboration of six institutions in the UK and Germany. The British members are the STFC UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxford University, and Durham University. (eso1251)

VISTA, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, is currently the world’s largest survey telescope. The 4 metre telescope was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 universities in the United Kingdom, led by Queen Mary, University of London. Project management for the telescope design and construction was undertaken by UKATC. The telescope was an 'in-kind' deliverable by the UK as part of its joining fee for ESO. (eso0008, eso0949)

British contributions to the ELT

Teledyne e2v will also design and produce the Large Visible Sensor Modules for the ELT. Each sensor, 800 x 800 pixels, will enable the ELT’s adaptive optics systems to make adjustments for the ever changing atmosphere. (ann17027)

HARMONI, the High Angular Resolution Monolithic Optical and Near-infrared Integral field spectrograph, will be one of the first-light instruments installed on the ELT. Led by the University of Oxford and the UKATC, HARMONI will have a sensitivity that is up to hundreds of times better than any current telescope of its kind. Institutes in France and Spain are also contributing. The Southampton-based company Selex ES which develops and manufactures sensors and systems, will provide the detectors for the instrument.