7 mins read 01 Oct 2020

Looking to the Southern Skies together with Europe

Australia has had long connections with the European astronomy and space communities but has recently fortified this through ongoing collaboration in resolving big science questions, the development of instrumentation and infrastructure and working with some of the world's biggest optical telescopes. Dr. Tayyaba Zafar explores this relationship.

Three of the four VLT telescopes (and the auxiliary telescope) sit below the Milky Way at the Paranal site of ESO’s observatory. Credit: A. Ghizzi Panizza/ESO.

Australia and Europe, have had long ties of collaboration in the fields of science, and in particular, in astronomy. This has enabled the Australian astronomy community to be at the forefront of science and discovery in projects that span across continents and communities. 

Looking over some of the infrastructure projects that Australia is a part of, we can start to get a picture of our global collaborative effort with projects like the Giant Magellan Telescope, ASKAP (and SKA) and Dark Matter facilities under construction in Victoria.

Understanding this return on investment for our localised science and academic industries, in 2017 the Australian government dedicated $26.1 million in the budget towards a signed 10-year strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) organisation starting from 2018 and running through to 2028. 

The signature ceremony was held on 11 July 2017 at the Australian National University, Canberra during the 51st annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia, and included a commitment of ongoing average annual funding to the value of $12 million per annum through to the end of the agreement period.

The ESO was created in 1962, and builds and operates some of the world's most powerful ground-based telescopes, providing state-of-the-art research facilities that are located in the clear, high altitude, and driest sites of Chile. 

The global organisation is supported by 16 member European states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) with Chile as the host and now Australia as the strategic partner.

Eyes in the Southern Hemisphere Sky

The facilities hosted by the ESO in Chile are also the world’s most productive astronomical observatory hosting a suite of telescopes and advanced UV/optical/infrared/radio instruments, and would allow Australian astronomers to remain at the forefront of international astronomical research and answer big questions of the Universe, with access to cutting-edge facilities and collaborate with other countries. 

The wonderful suite of UV/optical/infrared/radio ESO telescopes includes (per location)

La Silla Site

A ring of telescopes at ESO's La Silla observation site. Credit: Iztok Bončina/ESO.

  • Altitude: 2,400 metres, north of Santiago de Chile

  • 3.6-meter New Technology Telescope

  • ESO 3.6-meter Telescope

  • 2.2 MPG/ESO telescope

  • 1.5-meter Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope

  • There are also one 1.5-meter, two 1-meter, one 0.5-meter ESO telescopes in La Silla

Paranal Site

The Milky Way’s stars, gas and dust, arc over the ESO-operated VLT site, with the four 8.2 metre telescopes known as Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun. Credit: Miguel Claro/ESO.

  • Altitude: 2,600 metres high in the Atacama Desert, Chile

  • Very Large Telescope (VLT) consisting of four 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes

  • Four 1.8-meter Auxiliary Telescopes

  • 4.1-meter The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA)

  • 2.6-meter VLT Survey Telescope (VST)

Armazones Site

Artist impression of the E-ELT, with its giant primary mirror. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

  • Altitude: 3,000  metres high in the Atacama Desert, Chile

  • Upcoming 39-meter the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)

Chajnantor Site

Several dishes that make up part of the ALMA instrument. Credit: ALMA/ESO/NRAO/NAO/W. Garnier.

  • 5,100 metres high in the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes

  • 12-meter Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) millimeter and submillimeter telescope

  • Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) consisting of 66 high-precision antennas spreading over a distance of 16 kilometers

Australia-ESO Science Projects

There are a number of projects that Australia has been directly involved in, through this collaboration with the ESO.

The ESO Pipeline Project

he Very Large Telescope located in Chile. Credit: ESO/F. Kamphues.

In 2019, the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) won a three-year, $3-million contract from ther ESO to fine-tune their telescopes, ensuring the highest quality of images were being produced at the Very Large Telescopes (VLT) located in dry Chilean Atacama desert. 

This project features a collaboration between the ESO, AAO, Macquarie University, the University of Sydney and the Australian National University, working towards the development and maintenance of 19 VLT bespoke software pipelines that will allow astronomers from around the world to access high quality calibrated data.

ESO-Australia Joint Conferences

2019 conference poster. Credit: ESO.org.

The spirit of collaboration extends beyond borders and distance, with the ESO and Australian institutions working closely together on large scale projects, and through a joint conference platform that is held to establish better synergies between the two regions, whilst working towards holistic science goals.

Since 2019 two international conferences have been held so far, one in Sydney (165 participants) and the other in Perth (120 participants). The current pandemic has unfortunately placed a hold on events at this stage, but they’re expected to return in the near future - with new purpose and science goals to be addressed.

Australia's Contribution

Australian astronomers and researchers are also big contributors when it comes to the ESO facilities. Through our localised established expertise in adaptive optics, fibre-optics technology and engineering of astronomical instrumentation, Australia has developed or committed towards several ESO projects, instruments and services.

AESOP Fibre Positioner

The AAO-Macquarie group has developed an advanced fibre optic positioning system named AESOP fibre positioner, that will be integrated in the 4-meter Multi-Object Spectroscope Telescope (4MOST) instrument which is under construction for the ESO’s VISTA telescope. 

The positioning system will be able to obtain spectroscopic observation and analysis of roughly 2,400 targets over a 4-square degree field of view, detailing the chemical and kinematic structures of the different regions of our Milky Way Galaxy. The instrument will also be able to be used for extragalactic research - with the ability to measure redshifts and velocities of receding structures to be measured accurately, helping add value to the knowledge banks of galactic evolution.

OzPoz Fibre Positioner

The OzPoz fiber positioner placing fibres on the plate. Credit: ESO.

Another fibre positioning system, known as OzPoz is utilised on the FLAMES spectrograph, and mounted on the UT2 of the VLT. OzPoz is inspired by the same positioning system that was used on the Anglo-Australian Telescope as part of the 2-degree field galaxy redshift survey.

Featuring two facades, whilst one is in action and observing, the positioning system is placing roughly 130 fibres on the second plate, so it can be switched in as soon as the observation session from the first plate is over. 

This spectrograph is capable of providing high resolution spectra ranging from R ~ 5000 through to R ~ 30000.


The resolving power of MAVIS (simulated) will be able to detect individual stars in the distant Centaurus A Galaxy. Credit: Mavis-ao.org.

Australian institutions (which include the AAO, ANU, Swinburne University of Technology and Macquarie University) are leading an international consortium on the MCAO Assisted Visible Imager and Spectrograph (MAVIS) instrument - a powerful adaptive optics system, combined with an 4000 x 4000 imager and spectrograph. 

MAVIS will be able to cancel out any of Earth’s atmospheric distortions as the telescope looks towards the sky, whilst being able to image objects with crystal clarity, or obtain their spectral data. Once operational, the system will have the ability to probe deeper into space than the orbiting 2-meter Hubble Space Telescope and produce images sharper than the soon-to-be- launched James Webb Space Telescope.

The instrument, which has just passed the preliminary design phase review by the ESO will be installed on the VLT Adaptive Optics Facility (UT4).

This strong strategic partnership between Australia and the ESO will continue to increase the scientific and technical strength of our local astronomy community and will position Australian astronomers to retain high standing internationally. It will provide access to astronomers and industry to the world-class observatory, maintain the Australian research and technology excellence, and expand the international collaboration. 


AESOP and OzPoz Video Credits: AAO-MQ
All official images credited and copyright of the ESO website

Dr. Tayyaba Zafar

I am an astrophysicist, currently working as a Lecturer at the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) at Macquarie University. I am originally from Pakistan where I have completed my master’s in physics. I later competitively secure a PhD position in Denmark and completed my PhD in 2011.

I have worked in France for two years and received the "Excellence contribution in science" award from the Mayor of Marseille. Later, I worked with the European Southern Observatory, Germany, and experienced supporting the world's biggest telescopes called the Very Large Telescopes (located in Chile).

I moved to Australia in 2015 to work with the Australian Ministry of Industry, Innovation, and Science as a research astronomer. Currently, I am working with Macquarie University working on my research on stardust and building instruments for future telescope. My publication record includes 80 research papers all published in high impact factor journals scoring an m-index of 2.8. I am a 2020 NSW Tall Poppy recipient and also an alumna of Homeward Bound Project.