Dick Ahlstrom: All I want for Christmas is a (large) telescope

Joining the ESO would have long-term benefits for astronomers and astrophysicists

“Is that Santa?”: A Perseid  in the sky above the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in  Paranal in Chile. Photograph: S Guisard/ESO/PA Wire

“Is that Santa?”: A Perseid in the sky above the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Paranal in Chile. Photograph: S Guisard/ESO/PA Wire


Dear Santa, I have only one item on my wishlist this year: all I want for Christmas is a telescope. A nice, big telescope that I can share, which I will do if my wish is granted.

I recognise that this is a somewhat unusual request, not least because the telescope in question carries a €1 billion price tag. It costs so much because it is a really big telescope. In fact, it is called the Extremely Large Telescope because it is, well, extremely large.

I don’t want to own it; all I want is to share the telescope and get a chance for me and for others in Ireland to look at stars though the thing. So it wouldn’t cost you and the elves €1 billion to build. Besides, I have nowhere to put it, as it stands about 80 metres tall and my whole house and those of a few neighbours would all fit in it pretty easy.

In fact the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is being built at Cerro Paranal in Chile by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It invites countries to become members of the ESO and if they sign up, they get access to its telescopes.

Its current best telescope is the Very Large Telescope (you can see they do not put much effort into thinking up snappy names) and is the most powerful of its kind in the world. It is actually four telescopes, each of which is quite powerful, that can be used as a group to make a single even more powerful instrument.

Distant stars

This telescope is already famous, having discovered any number of things including that the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri, is orbited by an Earth-like planet.

The Extremely Large Telescope is now under construction and it will be a beast of a different kind when it comes into play in 2024. The mirror used to capture faint light from distant stars measures 39m across, making it the biggest in the world by far.

If we signed up, then Irish companies would immediately be entitled to bid for industrial contracts related to the project and there are plenty of them about, given the €1 billion cost. If we are outside the club, we can not apply for these.

More importantly it will give our astronomers and astrophysicists telescope time during which they can capture data, run projects and test new theories. It would also open up the possibility of agreeing research collaborations with leading scientists. We have always done well forming strong research collaborations once we gained access to a source of funds, for example the EU’s Horizon 2020 science budget.

Significant savings

However, let us cut to the chase, Santa: here is what it is going to set you back if Ireland signs up for access to the E-ELT. For starters there is a sign-up fee of €15 million which might seem high but, in fact, the ESO is anxious to see us join and has given us two concessions.

First, we can spread this cost over 10 years so €1.5 million a year over the decade. Second, the ESO has agreed to base costs on Ireland’s 2014 rather than 2015 figure for gross domestic product. This would result in a significant savings for the Irish taxpayer, say the astronomers pushing the Government to join.

Finally there is the regular annual contribution of €1.5 million we would be expected to pay as a member. This goes towards running the observatory in Chile and building new facilities including the E-ELT.

Is this too much to ask? Not really when you weigh things up. We would suddenly appear on an international science stage, with members of our astronomical community mixing it up with the best in the world. The boost to our international reputation would be priceless and would drive further projects.

It is worth remembering that there would be payback should Irish firms win software contracts or hardware design and manufacture contracts. The only problem is that we would need to join in the next two years if Irish companies are to be able to bid for any of the E-ELT tenders. The opportunities diminish as this huge construction project starts drawing to its 2024 conclusion.

And here is where you come in, Santa. The astronomers have been told that our only chance for ESO membership is to get these costs into the 2018 budget. This would allow us to secure membership by 2018.

So maybe Santa you could exert a bit of influence or make some Christmas magic happen and convince the Government that this represents good value for money. And oh yes: Merry Christmas!