Portuguese Involvement with the European Southern Observatory

Portugal joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in June 2000 and the membership was ratified by the Portuguese Parliament in May 2001. Portugal currently contributes 1.2% of ESO’s annual revenue.

The Portuguese involvement at ESO takes place in several fronts:

  1. Research using ESO infrastructure, awarded after competitive international calls;
  2. Contracts awarded to Portuguese industry following competitive calls;
  3. Development of advanced instrumentation for ESO;
  4. Science communication, education and outreach;
  5. Training of Portuguese engineers at ESO.

Portuguese research using ESO infrastructure

The main Portuguese research institutions involved in the use of ESO infrastructure for research in Astronomy & Astrophysics are (in alphabetical order):

  1. Centre for Astrophysics and Gravitation — CENTRA;
  2. Centre for Earth and Space Research of the University of Coimbra — CITEUC;
  3. Centre for Physics of the University of Coimbra — CFisUC;
  4. Centre for Research & Development in Mathematics and Applications — CIDMA;
  5. Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences — IA.

These research institutions include mainly staff from many Portuguese Universities (in alphabetical order):

  1. Universidade de Aveiro;
  2. Universidade de Coimbra;
  3. Universidade de Lisboa (Faculdade de Ciências e Instituto Superior Técnico);
  4. Universidade do Porto (Faculdade de Ciências e Faculdade de Engenharia).

Research areas include:

  1. Planetary systems, including the solar system and exoplanets;
  2. Stars and stellar systems;
  3. Formation and evolution of galaxies;
  4. Relativistic astrophysics and gravitational astronomy;
  5. Cosmology.

The research making use of ESO telescopes and infrastructure is published in international journals. The access to the infrastructure to collect data is through international competition. Portuguese researchers lead and participate in teams that write projects and are then evaluated. The competition is strong with the pressure (telescope time requested/time awarded) reaching sometimes a factor of 10. In addition, by participating in the consortiums than build the infrastructure instruments, Portuguese teams have access to Guaranteed Time Observations (as payback of work delivered).

Portuguese researchers have been involved in several of the ESO top 10 discoveries. These are:

  1. Measurement of the Milky Way black hole mass and relativistic effects with stellar orbits (research article).
  2. Discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating (which was awarded the 2011 Physics Nobel Prize, research article).
  3. Detection of the luminous counterpart of a gravitational wave source (research article).

Furthermore, Portugal is very strong on exoplanets, leading many discoveries in this field using ESO telescopes.

Some of the research work involving Portuguese researchers has also been the subject of various ESO press releases, namely:

eso1905, eso1835, eso1825, eso1622, eso1601: The instrument GRAVITY has made the first observations of the Galactic Centre, revealing for the first time the effects predicted by Einstein’s general relativity on the motion of a star passing through the extreme gravitational field near the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way. It has also made the first direct observation of an exoplanet using optical interferometry.

eso1823: Extremely detailed image of the star cluster RCW 38, taken during testing of the HAWK-I camera with the GRAAL adaptive optics system. It shows RCW 38 and its surrounding clouds of brightly glowing gas in exquisite detail, with dark tendrils of dust threading through the bright core of this young gathering of stars.

eso1802: Discovery of a star in the cluster NGC 3201 that appears to be orbiting an invisible black hole with about four times the mass of the Sun — the first such inactive stellar-mass black hole found in a globular cluster and the first found by directly detecting its gravitational pull.

eso1806, eso1739: The instrument ESPRESSO will search for exoplanets with unprecedented precision by looking at the minuscule changes in the light of their host stars. For the first time ever, an instrument will be able to sum up the light from all four VLT telescopes and achieve the light collecting power of a 16-metre telescope.

eso1736, eso1712, eso1517, eso1214, eso1134, eso1035, eso0942, eso0722, eso0619, eso0618, eso0427, eso0415: Discovery and study of exoplanets, including Ross 128b, a temperate Earth-sized planet discovered only 11 light-years from the Solar System and a “super-Earth” orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint red dwarf star LHS 1140. First-ever spectroscopic detection of visible light reflected off an exoplanet, revealing new properties the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The discovery that rocky planets not much bigger than Earth are very common in the habitable zones around faint red stars, which account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way. The discovery of 50 new exoplanets, including 16 super-Earths. The discovery of a planetary system containing seven planets, orbiting the Sun-like star HD 10180, which makes the system similar to our Solar System in terms of the number of planets. Also, like in our Solar System the distances of the planets from their star follow a regular pattern.

eso1701, eso0104: Most detailed view of Orion A molecular cloud in the near-infrared and ISAAC dataset on Orion’s Trapezium.

eso1524, eso1426, eso0944: Discovery of the brightest galaxy yet found from the early Universe. Best observations to date of a collision between two galaxies, that took place when the Universe was only half its current age. Study of the giant galaxy Centaurus A, which revealed it has recently captured and digested a smaller spiral galaxy.

eso1337, eso0809: Identification and study of star HIP 102152 as the oldest solar twin known to date. Discovery that the star iota Horlogii have drifted away from the Hyades cluster. This result has implications on the theories of star and planet formation, as well as for the dynamics of our Milky Way.

eso0507: Determination of the radius and mass of the smallest core-burning star known to date. The star is 96 times heavier than planet Jupiter but only 16% larger. It is the first time that direct observations demonstrate that stars less massive than 1/10th of the solar mass are of nearly the same size as giant planets.

Support to use of ESO telescopes

ESO provides support to Portuguese researchers in the use of its telescopes via the User Support Department.

Due to its complexity there exist special support to the use of ALMA, via the Portuguese ALMA Expertise Centre.

Support in the use of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer also takes place via the Portuguese VLTI Expertise Centre. This centre is not affiliated to ESO.

Contracts awarded to Portuguese industry

ESO awards contract to its member states following competitive bids. The contracts are in the scope of normal ESO operations and also in the development of new infrastructures such as ALMA or the ELT. Some universities were awarded contracts toward instruments.

The main (with contracts above 0.1 M€) industries involved are (in alphabetical order):

Development of advanced instrumentation

The ESO model involves the research institutes of its member states in the development of advanced instrumentation making use of its infrastructure. The development of advanced instrumentation is a critical activity for its member states as it: a) gives the teams involved a leading edge in the competitive access to the infrastructure; b) develops national scientific leadership; c) strengthens connections between academia and industry; d) widens the academia involvement to include areas of engineering and data.

The Portuguese institutions CENTRA, IA, INETI and LIP have been involved in instrumentation development for ESO.

Portugal participates in the following instruments:

  1. Instruments for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)
    1. HIRES is the ESO/ELT high-resolution spectrograph, with the main scientific aim of characterising the exoplanetary atmospheres including Earth-like planets, with the ultimate goal of looking for signatures of life, in development, Portugal is a consortium member.
    2. METIS is the ESO/ELT Mid-infrared Imager and Spectrograph, with the main scientific aims of characterizing protoplanetary disks and exoplanets, in development, Portugal is a consortium member.
    3. MOSAIC is the ESO/ELT multi-object spectrograph, with the main scientific aim of studying the first galaxies, in development, Portugal is as associated partner of this instrument.
  2. Instruments for the Very Large Telescope (Interferometer) VLT(I)
    1. ESPRESSO is the ESO/VLT high-resolution spectrograph, with the main scientific aim of detecting and characterising Earth twins in the habitable zone of solar-like stars, first light 2017, Portugal is consortium member.
    2. GRAVITY is the ESO/VLTI K-band beam combiner and spectrograph, with the main scientific aim of characterising the Galactic Centre supermassive black hole, first light 2016, Portugal is consortium member.
    3. MAD was a Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator, with the main scientific objective of demonstrating multi-conjugate adaptive optics technologies, first light in 2013, Portugal is consortium member.
    4. MOONS is the ESO/VLT Multi-Object Optical and Near-infrared Spectrograph, with the main scientific aim of characterising the formation and evolution of galaxies, in development, Portugal is consortium member.
  3. Instruments for the 3.6m
    1. NIRPS is an ESO/3.6m infrared high-resolution spectrograph, with the main scientific objective is to characterize low-mass exoplanets including rocky planets in the habitable zone, in development, Portugal is consortium member.

Science communication, education and outreach

Astronomy and Astrophysics is unrivalled with regards to spreading scientific culture. The magic of the cosmos has marvelled humanity since its dawn and continues to marvel youth and adults alike. ESO infrastructures relying on leading-edge technologies expand the appeal of the Cosmos towards engineering and data sciences, key areas for the future.

The ESO Outreach Partner Organisations collaborate regularly with ESO’s Department of Communication on informal education and outreach projects, events or campaigns. This exclusive partnership initiated by ESO recognise the efforts of selected planetariums, science centres and other informal educational institutions. Among the current thirteen ESO Outreach Partner Organisations there are three Portuguese ones, namely:

The ESO Communication Department has designated night-sky photographers with special ties to ESO as “ESO Photo Ambassadors”, assisting them whenever possible and further promoting their photos, so as to bring astronomy closer to people. These are individuals who produce astonishing views of ESO sites and the Chilean skies. Miguel Claro, the official astrophotographer for the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve — the first starlight tourism destination in the world, located in the eastern part of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo Province — features among the ESO Photo Ambassadors (potw1914a, potw1915a).

Since 2012 the Centro de Astrofísica da Universidade do Porto has been organising the AstroCamp, an astronomy-focused summer academic program for secondary school students, held each year in August in northern Portugal, at the Centre for Environmental Education and Interpretation of the Corno de Bico Protected Landscape. From 2017 ESO has been supporting the camp with a bursary to cover the camp fee, offered to the best eligible applicant from one of ESO’s Member States. This partnership includes several ESO Announcements (ann17006, ann17016, ann17034, ann18021, ann18044, ann19009, ann19035) and Pictures of the Week (potw1735a, potw1837a).

ESO also contributes to education and dissemination activities at degree, master, doctoral and post-doctoral level taking place in Portugal

Training of Portuguese engineers at ESO

Further to the ESO led training opportunities, Portugal has its own programme of engineering internships at ESO (Germany and Chile). Every year two internships are awarded.

Further information at https://www.fct.pt/apoios/cooptrans/traineeships/index.phtml.en

Portuguese members of ESO governing bodies


Chiara Manfletti, Portugal Space Agency
Paulo Garcia, Universidade do Porto

Finance Committee

Filipa Coelho, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia

Scientific and Technical Committee (STC)

Sérgio Sousa, Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço

Users Committee

Nuno Peixinho, Observatório Geofísico e Astronómico da Universidade de Coimbra

Observing Programmes Committee (OPC)

Many Portuguese experts serve in the OPC panels. Following international good practices, their name is kept confidential, on average their number exceeds the Portuguese contribution to ESO budget.