International consortia seek Brazilian astronomers and funding | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Country’s astronomy community ponders participation in two megatelescope projects with construction beginning in 2014 (illustration: GMT)

International consortia seek Brazilian astronomers and funding

January 22, 2014

By Elton Alisson

Agência FAPESP – Brazilian scientific production in astronomy has grown in the past decade. The number of scientific articles published annually in the field by Brazilian scientists increased from 150 in 1995 to 230 in 2010. According to researchers in this area, part of this increase in scientific production results from Brazil’s participation in international consortia that guarantee access to observational instruments for which competition is strong.

The main initiatives were participation in observatories such as Gemini, which began operations in 2004 with two “twin” telescopes (one in the Chilean Andes and another in Hawaii), and the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR), inaugurated in the Andes in 2005.

Brazil currently has a 6% share of the observations made with Gemini, whose telescopes have main mirrors of 8.1 meters in diameter. The Brazilian share in SOAR, which has mirrors of 4.2 meters in diameter, is 30%. Brazilian participation in the two observatories is funded by FAPESP and other research foundations in the country.

“The increase in the number of articles published by Brazilian astronomers in the past few years has an absolutely direct relationship to participation in Gemini and SOAR,” said João Steiner, a professor at the Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences Institute at Universidade de São Paulo (IAG-USP).

“We had been stalled for almost a decade in terms of publication of scientific articles and the number of master’s and PhD students. When Gemini and SOAR began operations, these two indicators then grew at a very fast pace,” he recalls.

Currently, the research community in the area is being invited to participate in and to help fund two of the largest megatelescope construction projects underway worldwide: the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), planned by a consortium of institutions in the United States, Australia and South Korea; and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), planned by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Both will be built in Chile because the sky of the Southern Hemisphere is considered much richer than the Northern Hemisphere in terms of potential astronomical observations. Additionally, sites such as the Andes mountain range in Northern Chile are available for making observations.

With construction slated to start in July 2014 in Cerro Las Campanas, the GMT will contain seven round, segmented mirrors, each 8.4 meters in diameter. Gathered like flower petals around a central bulb, they will form an optical surface with a 24-meter diameter. The GMT is slated to come on line in 2019.

The project is budgeted at US$ 690 million (roughly R$ 1.6 billion), with forecasts of US$ 30 million for each year that construction is delayed. For this reason, the coordinators of the project are hastening the approval process from institutions that have shown interest in participating in the project. Among these institutions are the universities of Arizona, Texas and Chicago and Texas A&M University – all in the United States – and the Australian National University.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Carnegie Institute of Science, both in the United States, the South Korea Institute of Astronomic and Space Sciences and Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) also confirmed interest in the project.

“The most urgent and critical challenge for GMT is to obtain financing for the construction phase,” explained Wendy Freedman, president of the consortium, during a workshop on the project held on November 13 and 14, 2013 at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo.

The event was part of FAPESP’s evaluation process for a request for funding to support participation in GMT. The request was submitted by researchers from universities and institutions in São Paulo. Following peer review, gauging the São Paulo research community’s interest, as well as the potential involvement of companies in the state, became a clear necessity as part of the larger analysis process.

Under the proposal, FAPESP would have a 4% stake in the project. This stake would guarantee São Paulo researchers 4% of the observation time at the observatory annually. The organizers are requesting US$ 40 million in funding from FAPESP.

The São Paulo astronomers would also have a seat on the consortium’s board, a vote in the decisions for the project and an opportunity to participate in building the telescope (including the construction of parts of the telescope, such as the dome, which will require 4,000 tons of steel, and the development of scientific instrumentation). At the beginning of November, GMT engineers held an “Industry Day” at FAPESP to present information on possible participation in building the telescope to local potential suppliers and service providers.

“We have no doubt about the scientific importance of GMT. But the role that São Paulo researchers will play must be clearly defined, and we must know exactly what the guarantees and risks are, in addition to knowing which technologies can be created through this international project,” said Hernan Chaimovich, special aide to the Scientific Department at FAPESP, at the event’s opening on November 13.

Brazil and the ESO

With the ESO, in contrast, efforts have been ongoing for several years to encourage the Brazilian government to ratify the country’s membership in the European astronomy consortium and to participate in the construction of the E-ELT and the institution’s other projects.

With construction also slated to begin in 2014, the E-ELT, which will have a 39-meter diameter mirror and will be nestled on top of a mountain in Chile’s Cerro Armazones range, will be the largest of the extremely large telescopes. Construction should be complete in 2023.

The main mirror is expected to consist of 800 hexagonal segments, each one meter in size, that will form a honeycomb of mirrors with the capacity to capture 15 times more light than the largest telescope in operation today, Gran Telescopio Canarias (Canaries Great Telescope), with 10.4 meters in diameter.

To participate in the construction of the telescope, however, Brazil must pass legislation approving membership in the European astronomy consortium. A bill is currently under study in the National Congress.

“By entering the ESO, Brazil will have the opportunity to join a long-standing astronomy research program that is perhaps the world’s best today and in which engineers, astronomers and high-tech companies have a chance to work together,” said the organization’s General Director, Tim de Zeeuw, during the visit of a group of Brazilian journalists to the ESO’s installations in Chile at the beginning of November at the organization’s request.

Although it is not officially an associate, Brazil is being treated and cited as an official member in several types of promotional materials for the ESO, for example, on the website. Moreover, there are several references to the country at the organization’s installations in Chile.

For example, the Brazilian flag is flying alongside those of the 14 European countries that are official members of the consortium at the ESO observatory on the Cerro Paranal, a 2,600-meter mountain located in the Atacama desert near Cerro Armazones.

The landscape is so similar to Mars that during the first week of October, the European Space Agency (ESA) conducted a test with the Bridget robot for a future exploratory mission on the Red Planet.

The country is also mentioned in one of the observatory’s much less visible levels: an underground tunnel painted in green and yellow, located in the Control Center of the Very Large Telescope (VLT). The tunnel is called “Brazil Avenue”, an allusion to a Brazilian telenovela currently shown in Chile.

Brazilian astronomers have sporadically made observations using the telescopes of the European consortium. “Brazilian proposals for observation time at VLT have not been consistent. Of the almost 1,000 proposals that we receive per year, only 2% are from Brazilian colleagues,” explained Claudio de Figueiredo Melo, who has been at the ESO in Chile since 2003 and who in April was appointed to one of the most important positions in the hierarchy of the astronomy research consortium: scientific director.

In August, in an effort to accelerate the integration of the scientific community of astronomers with the ESO, Melo and São Paulo researcher Dimitri Alexei Gadotti – who did his doctoral and post-doctoral work as a FAPESP fellow and is part of the permanent team of the consortium’s astronomers – visited several universities and research institutions in Brazil to describe research opportunities available on the telescopes of the Chilean observatory and to explain how time request proposals should be formatted.

In 2011 and 2013, the ESO also held an “Industry Day” to offer Brazilian companies development opportunities for constructing scientific instrumentation of the telescopes. Recently, the ESO also approved a project for the development of the first Brazilian instrument to be integrated into one of the VLT telescopes on Cerro Paranal.

The instrument, known as CUBES, is being built by researchers at IAG-USP in collaboration with colleagues from the National Astrophysics Laboratory in Minas Gerais.

CUBES is the acronym for Cassegrain U-band Brazilian-ESO Spectrograph, which consists of a low- to medium-wavelength spectrograph that is specialized to perform ultraviolet wavelength observations. These observations will be focused on studies of the chemical composition of galaxies. The project will initially be funded by the LNA and IAG. 



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