Portuguese Involvement with the European Southern Observatory

Observations with the HAWK-I camera on ESO’s VLT, led by researchers in Portugal, shows the star cluster RCW 38 in all its glory. Credit: ESO/K. Muzic

Portugal joined ESO as a Member State on 7 May 2001. The country’s community of scientists and engineers has contributed to many ESO projects in key ways, such as conducting research using ESO infrastructure, development of advanced instrumentation and telescopes, training of scientists, engineers and communicators, and with contracts awarded to Portuguese industry.  

Portugal currently contributes 1.19% of ESO’s annual revenue, with a value of 2 285 000 EUR. 

As of mid 2022, there are 10 Portuguese employees at ESO, nine in Germany and one in Chile. Furthermore, ESO has awarded six studentships,11 fellowships, and eight internships to Portuguese nationals since 2004. 

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

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

Here follows some information about Portugal’s involvement with ESO. 

Discoveries by Portugal-based astronomers using ESO telescopes 

Portuguese researchers and those based at Portuguese institutions have been involved in important discoveries using ESO facilities, including many of the ESO top 10 discoveries. Scientific discoveries from the past few years include 

  • A study led by João Faria, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA/UPorto), and including many more Portuguese researchers from various institutions, a team discovered a new planet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun. Using one of ESO’s foremost planet hunters, ESPRESSO on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), they could detect the signal of the planet, a thrilling discovery. 
  • Another recent, key exoplanet discovery which was led by researchers in Portugal was the finding of a warm terrestrial planet with half the mass of Venus orbiting a nearby star. Olivier D. S. Demangeon of the IA/UPorto, Centro de Astrofísica da Universidade do Porto [CAUP], Portugal and Departamento de Física e Astronomia, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade do Porto) led the study.
  • Portuguese researchers, including Susana Barros (IA/UPorto), Alexandre Correia (University of Coimbra) and Nuno Santos (IA/UPorto) were part of the team who discovered and studied a puzzling six-exoplanet system with the help of ESO’s VLT.
  • Key discoveries related to the black hole at the centre of our galaxy by António Amorim (CENTRA, University of Lisbon) and Paulo Garcia, a researcher at Portugal’s Centre for Astrophysics and Gravitation (CENTRA) and the University of Porto, who are both members of the GRAVITY collaboration. Recent results include finding that a star moving close to a black hole follows an orbit that is exactly as predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and making the most precise measurement yet of the black hole’s mass by tracking the orbits of stars at the centre of our Milky Way.
  • Using the HAWK-I camera on the VLT, a team of astronomers led by Koraljka Muzic (CENTRA, University of Lisbon) and Joana Ascenso (then at CENTRA & University of Porto) obtained one of the most stunning images ever of the star cluster RCW 38. As seen in the image at the top of this page, the clouds of the cluster glow in exquisite detail, with dark tendrils of dust threading through the bright core of this young gathering of stars.
  • David Sobral from the University of Lisbon, and Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, who led a team of astronomers that discovered the brightest galaxy found in the young Universe, with strong evidence that the first generation of stars lurks within it.  

Portuguese involvement in ESO instruments and telescopes at ESO sites 

Portugal is contributing to many aspects of ESO, with Portuguese institutions behind already existing and upcoming instruments based at telescopes on ESO sites. These include: 

  • ESPRESSO, a high-resolution spectrograph on the VLT, with the main scientific aim of detecting and characterising Earth twins in the habitable zone of solar-like stars. The universities of Porto and Lisbon are part of the consortium. 
  • GRAVITY, a K-band beam combiner and spectrograph on the VLTI, with the main scientific aim of characterising the Galactic Centre supermassive black hole. The University of Lisbon is part of the consortium. 
  • MAD, the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator, with the main scientific objective of demonstrating multi-conjugate adaptive optics technologies. A consortium led by Universiry of Lisbon was responsible for developing the Camera for the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics instrument, which was used by MAD to evaluate the correction performance. 
  • MOONS, upcoming third generation instrument for the VLT that will operate in the infrared. The main scientific aim is to characterise the formation and evolution of galaxies, and to peer into the centre of the Milky Way. The University of Lisbon is part of the consortium. 
  • NIRPS is a recently installed planet hunter at ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory. This infrared high-resolution spectrograph will characterise low-mass exoplanets, including rocky planets in the habitable zone. The IA/UPorto & University of Lisbon are part of the consortium. 

Portuguese involvement in ELT instruments 

Portugal is part of the development of many of the instruments for ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will be the largest eye on the sky, namely 

  • ANDES (previously known as HIRES), a high-resolution spectrograph with the main scientific aim of characterising exoplanetary atmospheres including those of Earth-like planets, with the ultimate goal of looking for signatures of life. The Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, University of Lisbon & University of Porto, are part of the consortium. 
  • METIS, a Mid-infrared Imager and Spectrograph, with the main scientific aims of characterising planet-forming disks and exoplanets. CENTRA, University of Lisbon is part of the consortium.  
  • MOSAIC, a multi-object spectrograph which can study many objects at once, with the main scientific aim of studying the first galaxies. The University of Lisbon is part of the consortium. 

Portuguese industry and technology contributions to ESO 

Portuguese companies have made important industry and technology contributions to ESO over the years. For example, Portuguese company A. Silva Matos, S.A. was in charge of manufacturing and delivering liquefied petroleum gas tanks to the ALMA site.  

Portuguese industry contributions to the ELT 

The contributions of Portuguese companies to ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope are especially significant. These include 

  • Critical Software S.A. which has been awarded a contract for consultancy services for independent ELT software validation and verification.
  • ISQ - Instituto de Soldadura e Qualidade which was contracted to provide quality assurance consultancy services for the project.
  • Active Space Technologies which conducted conceptual design of the ELT adaptive optics calibration unit. 

Additional Involvement 

Training of Portuguese engineers at ESO 

In 2013, ESO and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) signed a collaboration agreement concerning on-the-job training of Portuguese technical graduates in technologies available at ESO. Under this collaboration, ESO hosts a limited number of Portuguese Technical Graduates at its facilities, with the objective of carrying out an on-the-job training programme specially designed to meet the needs of industry and research organisations in Portugal. 

Science communication, education and outreach 

Since 2012, CAUP has been organising AstroCamp, an astronomy-focused academic summer program for secondary school students. 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.  

Support to use ESO telescopes 

ESO provides support to Portuguese researchers in the use of its telescopes via the User Support Department. Due to its complexity, there exists special support for the use of ALMA, via the Portuguese ALMA Expertise Centre as well as for the Very Large Telescope Interferometer via the Portuguese VLTI Expertise Centre, led by Mercedes Filho (Instituto Superior Técnico, CENTRA). This centre is not affiliated with ESO.