AAL 2020/21 Annual Report – ESO

Since mid-2018, AAL has supported the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) in their management of the Australia-European Southern Observatory (ESO) Strategic Partnership. As DISER works toward attaining full membership of ESO, AAL remains fully committed to helping them achieve this goal, overseeing activities and stakeholder communications to ensure Australian-based astronomers get the most out of their ESO access, and by tracking all the tangible benefits emerging from the Partnership.

Since the signing of the Australia-ESO Strategic Partnership in 2017, AAL has supported DISER by providing a collective 0.5 FTE of staff effort, with the goal of maximising and tracking the benefits of the Partnership to Australia. This dedicated staff resource has allowed AAL to provide DISER and AAL member institutions with detailed statistics around the demand for, and usage of, ESO time. AAL’s ESOStats database contains a record of all ESO proposals and publications since Period 101 with one or more Australian investigators/authors. Implemented and hosted by AAO-Macquarie’s Data Central, the database allows easy searching of proposals and publications and has streamlined the reporting to Australian stakeholders.

Science highlights of the Strategic Partnership

Through initiatives such as ESOStats, AAL has been monitoring and assessing the scientific return from the Australia-ESO Strategic Partnership and has demonstrated the significant value overall that Australia brings to the arrangement. This value has been particularly evident in cases where Australian ESO access has complemented, or leveraged off, Australia’s investment in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and its Australian precursor instruments – the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP). Examples have included use of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to characterise the host galaxies and environments of Fast Radio Bursts discovered and localised with ASKAP; tracing molecular gas with the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in outflows from our Milky Way galaxy and from the Magellanic Clouds first identified with ASKAP; and the weighing of supermassive black holes with the VLT at the centres of some of the most distant galaxies revealed by the MWA.

Scientific Breakthrough of Localising FRBs

Science Magazine, 09 August 2019, VOL 365, Issue 6453

COVER: The Milky Way seen above the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) – a radio telescope located in Western Australia. ASKAP’s 36 dishes (five visible here) work together as an interferometer to precisely locate radio sources. Astronomers using ASKAP have for the first time identified the host galaxy of a single, none-repeating Fast Radio Burst (a flash of radio emission lasting only a few milliseconds) in optical images obtained with ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

(This paper, published in the prestigious journal Science, was subsequently awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2020 Newcomb Cleveland Prize, for the most impactful paper published in Science that year.)

Image: CSIRO/Alex Cherney

Administrative and user support

AAL routinely collates other data (via annual polls) from Australian ESO Principal Investigators, providing complementary information to that collected by the ESO Users Committee. This includes the fraction of ESO time that was ultimately usable, the degree to which new collaborations were formed, the number of early career researchers who benefit from data access, the ARC research grants that helped support and/or will benefit from these observations, and any resulting outreach activities.

AAL also assists DISER in their appointment of Australian astronomy representatives for the ESO Council, Scientific and Technical Committee, and Users Committee, by running an open nominations process and coordinating the shortlist of applicants for Departmental and ESO consideration. AAL’s Board Chair is a member of DISER’s ESO Coordinating Group, and AAL staff also serve on the working group that is helping DISER to develop the business case for full membership of ESO.

In terms of providing support for the Australian ESO user community, AAL facilitates an exchange of information via the Australian ESO Forum hosted on the AAL website. The Forum features monthly blog posts by ESO users sharing their experiences (e.g., as visiting observers, graduate or summer students at ESO), as well as the latest results coming from Australian-led use of ESO facilities. It summarises Australian demand for, and allocations of ESO time, while also maintaining a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page for current and potential users, and provides a condensed version of the latest Call for Proposals.

Communications and Outreach

All ESO announcements relevant to the Australian-based astronomy community are regularly disseminated by AAL via a number of different communication channels (i.e., the Astronomical Society of Australia’s member e-mail list, AAL’s social media accounts and email updates to member representatives). These include ESO Fellowship and Studentship opportunities, scientific and technical career opportunities, and upcoming local/international workshops and conferences. To support Australian researchers attempting to gain access to ESO infrastructure, AAL also facilitates ESO proposal writing workshops for any institution(s) that requests it and provides real-time, face-to-face responses to ESO queries from Australian users (when time-zone differences to both Germany and Chile preclude such interaction during normal working hours). Feedback from users has indicated this support is especially appreciated in the hours leading up to proposal deadlines, when ESO is not able to be of assistance. AAL serves as the Australian node of the ESO Science Outreach Network (ESON) in coordinating and promoting ESO media releases, particularly those with some Australian involvement.

Back in 2018 AAL worked with ESO to facilitate remote participation at annual La Silla Paranal Observatory User Workshops. Ensuring the availability of recordings after these events, AAL has broadened Australian participation well beyond the traditional in-person events held at ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany. Opening up the observatory to the possibilities of videoconferencing also made it far easier for ESO to rapidly switch to entirely on-line workshops when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The First Three Years of ESO – Video

As part of the 2021 Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) Annual Scientific Meeting, AAL submitted a video poster to highlight the first three years of the Australia-ESO Strategic Partnership. You can view the video by clicking here or on the image link below, or view the accompanying poster here.


Australia’s Strategic Partnership with ESO is made possible by the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER). AAL also manages funding from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) for the national optical instrumentation capability, allowing Australian instrument designers to work on projects for ESO facilities.