British Involvement with the European Southern Observatory

Artist impression of the star-forming galaxy NGP-190387 (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The United Kingdom (UK) joined ESO as a Member State on 24 June 2002. Over the past two decades, the UK scientific community has been involved in significant discoveries made with ESO telescopes and the UK industry and institutions made key contributions to ESO’s projects. 

The UK currently contributes 15.97% of ESO’s revenue (2021 contribution), worth 25 661 000 EUR. 

As of mid 2022, there are 47 British nationals employed at ESO, 37 in Germany and 10 in Chile. Furthermore, ESO has awarded 24 studentships and 24 fellowships to British nationals since 2004, as well as 39 internships since 2004.  

The UK is represented in the various ESO governing and advisory bodies by astronomers and policy experts; the current UK representatives of ESO’s various committees with national representation can be found here

The ESO Science Outreach Network (ESON) includes British representatives who act as ESO’s media and outreach local contacts. 

Here follows some information about British involvement with ESO. 

Discoveries by UK-based astronomers using ESO telescopes 

The UK has led and contributed towards a considerable number of astronomical discoveries with the use of ESO telescopes. Recent examples include 

  • Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), a team led by Boris Gänsicke at the University of Warwick, UK, found the first giant planet around a white dwarf star. The unique system hints at what our own Solar System might look like in the distant future, as the Sun will end its life as a white dwarf. 
  • A team of astronomers led by Maximilien Franco from the UK’s University of Hertfordshire that used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect fluorine in a galaxy so far away its light took 12 billion years to reach us. This is the first time fluorine — an element found in our bones and teeth as fluoride — has been spotted in such a distant star-forming galaxy. 
  • A team led by Stefano Bagnulo of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, Northern Ireland, UK that used the VLT to discover that the interstellar-comet 2I/Borisov had never had a close encounter with a star, making it an undisturbed relic of the cloud of gas and dust from which it formed. 
  • The possible discovery of the rare molecule phosphine in the atmosphere of our neighbour planet Venus. This was reported by an international team led by British astronomer Jane Greaves, Cardiff University, UK, who used ALMA to confirm the detection of this element, a potential marker of life.  

British involvement in ESO instruments and telescopes at ESO sites 

The UK has contributed to many aspects of ESO, with many UK institutions behind instruments, ESO telescopes and telescopes based at ESO sites. These include 

  • The second-generation instrument KMOS at the VLT, which uses infrared integral-field spectroscopy 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. 
  • The pioneering 4-metre VISTA survey telescope, which 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. 
  • Several UK hardware and science groups that are involved in ALMA; user support for the UK community is provided through the UK ALMA Regional Centre (ARC), based at the University of Manchester. ARC provides guidance on proposal preparation, advanced data reduction and interpretation techniques. 

British involvement in ELT instruments 

  • The construction of the HARMONI instrument, which will be one of the first-light instruments installed on the upcoming ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), is led by the University of Oxford and the UKATC. HARMONI will have a sensitivity hundreds of times better than any current instrument of its kind. Institutes in France and Spain are also contributing.  
  • The upcoming MOSAIC instrument at the ELT will peer closer at distant galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe. MOSAIC is being developed by a consortium, in which both Durham University, UKATC and the University of Oxford participate. The University of Oxford is also involved in the plans for a future ELT instrument, an exoplanet imager dubbed EPICS or ELT-PCS.  

British industry and technology contributions to ESO 

The UK has contributed to many aspects of ESO, with many contracts awarded to British industry. This includes 

  • The British company e2v (now an international company known as Teledyne e2v), which is based in Chelmsford in the UK, and has been providing CCD cameras for ESO telescopes for many years. Many VLT instruments use their technology, such as SPHERE, MUSE and ESPRESSO. The sensors installed on the planet hunter NGTS hosted at ESO’s Paranal Observatory are also by e2v.
  • The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, which supplied the cryostats for ALMA. 

British industry contributions to the ELT 

The main ELT related contracts already awarded to British companies include 

  • The design and production of the Large Visible Sensor Modules for the ELT with Teledyne e2v. Each sensor, 800 x 800 pixels, will enable the ELT’s adaptive optics systems to cancel out the turbulent atmosphere while observing. 
  • The Southampton-based company Selex ES, which develops and manufactures sensors and systems, will provide the detectors for the HARMONI instrument.
  • The company Optic Glyndwr Limited helped with the procurement of ELT primary mirror segment prototypes.