€14.6m access to European Space Observatory a boost for Irish firms

Ireland will pay €14.6m over the next decade to allow members of the Irish science community access to the world’s best space observatory — and hopes to secure multiples of that amount in return through Irish firms tendering to work on the project.

Details of the agreement between the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere — better known as the European Space Observatory — and Ireland has been laid before the Oireachtas.

A decades-long campaign by members of the Irish scientific community for Ireland to join the project finally bore fruit when it emerged last September that Ireland would join the ESO.

The terms of the agreement, finalised at a meeting on June 5 last, includes the terms of Ireland’s “special contribution” of €14.66m to be paid up to and including 2028. It starts with a payment of €250,000 this year and will mean annual payments of €1.41m each year after that.

However, Dr Emma Whelan, secretary and treasurer of the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland, said membership of the ESO would not just be hugely beneficial to scientists here, but would also allow Irish firms to tender to build and develop technology and parts of the telescopes used by the ESO at the observatory high in the Andes mountains in Paranal, Chile.

“It’s like joining a very expensive golf club,” Dr Whelan said, adding that as ESO members, Irish firms will be in a position to tender for projects involving the telescopes that were previously out of their reach.

“We expect up to 10 times our investment.”

Dr Whelan, who works in the Department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth University, said from September all the astrophysicists in Ireland will be able to apply for observation time using the telescopes in Paranal, which will benefit academic and post-doc research.

“It has been quite a big campaign,” she said of the efforts made to secure Ireland’s membership.

“For the astrophysicists, it is amazing.

“We can now get time on these telescopes and these are the telescopes that have discovered all these ESO planets.”

The ESO was initially founded because the international community concluded that the study of the southern celestial hemisphere was behind that of the northern hemisphere. It was also noted that in many cases European observatories do not have the right atmospherical conditions to view as far out into space as high, dry areas such as Paranal.



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