Australian Astronomy Just Got A $129 Million Boost

Image: ESO/Y. Beletsky

Good news, Australian Scientists!

Australia is set to team up with the European Southern Observatory in a Government-led "big science" partnership, aiming to provide Aussie astronomers with long-term access to the world's best optical telescopes - and keep us at the forefront of global optical astronomy. (That's astronomy, the science - not astrology, the not-science.)

First announced in the 2017–18 budget, the deal was formally signed today, with the Government investing $129 million over 10 years in the partnership.

The partnership starts in 2018, and will allow Australian astronomers to use the 8-metre telescopes at ESO's La Silla and Paranal Observatories in the Atacama Mountains of Chile, which is among the world's best sites for optical astronomy.

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science says this agreement answers calls from the Australian astronomy community over several years for long-term access to large optical-infrared telescopes.

"This important partnership with a world-class organisation will allow Australia to maintain its research excellence in this era of global astronomy, and provides crucial opportunities for Australian influence and technical and scientific input, stimulating international research and industry collaborations," the department says.

But the benefits of this partnership will be felt beyond the research community, with new opportunities opening up for small and medium businesses to tender for contracts ranging from heavy engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering to the design and development of precision optics, electronics, sensors, and complex instrumentation.

The department says commercialisation of astronomy technologies can also mean future applications in areas like medicine, telecommunications, and manufacturing.

The Director General of ESO, Professor Tim de Zeeuw, said the collaboration would lead to fundamental new advances in science and technology that neither could hope to achieve alone.

"Australia has a long and rich history of internationally acclaimed astronomical research. The already very active and successful astronomical community will undoubtedly thrive with long-term access to ESO's cutting-edge facilities," Prof de Zeeuw said.

Prof de Zeeuw pointed out that Australia's expertise in astronomical technology (including advanced adaptive optics and fibre-optics) is ideally matched with ESO's instrumentation programme, and that Australia will benefit from access to industrial, instrumentation and scientific opportunities at ESO's La Silla Paranal Observatory.

"By working together, we can sustain and strengthen Australia's world-leading astronomy capability and seize this unprecedented opportunity to secure the future of optical astronomy in this country," Prof de Zeeuw said.