AAL 2021/22 Annual Report – ESO

Since mid-2018, AAL has supported the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR) in their management of the Australia-European Southern Observatory (ESO) Strategic Partnership. As DISR 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 DISR 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 DISR 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.

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).

The FURBY Large Programme

A good example of this exists within the FURBY Large Programme allocation, led by Ryan Shannon from Swinburne University of Technology. The international team, including Australian astronomers at Swinburne, Curtin University, CSIRO, Macquarie University, and the University of Sydney, have been awarded a total of 179 hours over Periods 108-111 to follow up 50 ASKAP-localised Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). FRBs have been an enigma since first being discovered with the Parkes radio telescope in 2007 – as their name implies, they are brief bursts of emission (only a few milliseconds in duration) seen only at radio wavelengths. In a few cases, FRBs appear to repeat, and even then only irregularly.

Astronomers have already determined that FRBs originate from outside of our Milky Way galaxy, with follow-up observations of host galaxies (originally localised with ASKAP) requiring access to 8-m optical/infrared telescopes in the Southern hemisphere. The fleet of instrumentation available on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) is perfect for this task – allowing the team to make detailed studies of FRB host galaxies and tackle one of FURBY’s biggest goals – determining the ultimate cause of FRBs. The team also hopes to solve some of the other big questions in this field of study, including whether there are differences between the FRB sources that repeat and those that do not, and how FRBs might be used as cosmological tools to study the intergalactic medium (the space between galaxies).

This project not only highlights a major benefit from Australia’s access to the VLT under the Strategic Partnership, but also demonstrates the complementarity nature of Australian radio and ESO optical/infrared facilities and the scientific gains that can be achieved by bringing them together.

See more about the FURBY Large Programme allocation and what the team hopes to achieve by visiting the article written by team leader Ryan Shannon on our ESO blog.

The observing platform of ESO’s VLT on Cerro Paranal, in Chile. Credit: ESO/H.H. Heyer.
MAVIS gets busy

The Australian-led international consortium building the MAVIS (Multi-conjugate adaptive optics Assisted Visible Imager and Spectrograph) instrument for ESO gathered together during 2021/22 for a project ‘Busy Week’ – five days of intensive activity and interaction to progress key aspects of the project. MAVIS is a $57M project to create an instrument capable of delivering space-quality images from the ground. To be built over a seven year period, MAVIS will be able to remove blurring from telescope images captured by ESO’s VLT in Chile, caused by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. Fitted to one of the VLT’s eight-metre Unit Telescopes, MAVIS will be able to produce images three times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, a world-first for ground-based instrumentation.

MAVIS project scientist, Associate Professor Richard McDermid from Macquarie University, was impressed by how the team managed to collaborate effectively with international partners working remotely throughout the five day meeting, and is excited to continue working on a project that represents a significant milestone for Australia’s growing relationship with ESO. 

See Richard’s ESO blog post here for more information about the recent five day project meeting, and here for more information from Australian consortium leaders, Astralis, about the MAVIS project.

Rendering of the MAVIS instrument. Credit: ESO.
Removing a cosmological problem with a shot of ESPRESSO 

Lithium is the heaviest element produced in Big Bang nucleosynthesis – a term that refers to the production of nuclei other than normal light hydrogen in the early universe. Lithium is a unique element that can be used to study the conditions shortly after the Big Bang, however, observations suggest that there is less lithium in the universe than there should be. There are a few possible solutions to this problem, though measuring lithium can be challenging, requiring high resolution, high signal-to-noise (S/N) spectra, and wavelength stability. The ESO/VLT ultra-stable high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was the perfect instrument to carry out the high quality observations required, and during 2021/22, Ella Xi Wang and her team used ESPRESSO with surprising results – apparently removing one of the ‘cosmological lithium problems’ of our universe. See the full published paper here, and Ella’s ESO blog on their use of ESPRESSO here

A FLASH combination: ASKAP and MUSE sniff out gas around galaxies

In another excellent example of Australian-ESO instrument collaboration, the MUSE instrument (Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) on ESO’s VLT combined with ASKAP during 2021/22 to create the First Large Absorption Survey in H I (neutral hydrogen) – or FLASH – a study that probed the intricacies of gas behaviour in galaxy groups at an evolutionary time in our universe’s history that has been largely unexplored, up until now. Read more about the full FLASH study in the published paper, or via the ESO blog written by lead author, Simon Weng.

Additional highlights from the Strategic Partnership 

The SkyMapper Telescope (at Siding Spring Observatory) and the VLT recently revealed a new source of uranium and gold in the early Universe. Of the possible cosmic sources of these heavy elements, a Nature paper published in July 2021 proved that only a ‘magnetorotational hypernova’ (formed by the collapse and explosion of a rapidly spinning star with a strong magnetic field) could produce the full element pattern seen in a chemically primitive star located in our Milky Way Galaxy. Until recently, it was thought that neutron star mergers were the only confirmed source of these heavier elements. These mergers were very rare in the early universe, however, so it was suspected that another source was responsible for producing the heavy elements in these oldest stars. For more information on this fascinating discovery, click here to read the ESO blog written by lead authors from ANU David Yong and Gary Da Costa, as well as Chiaki Kobayashi from the University of Hertfordshire.

Additionally, a team of software engineers from Astralis-AAO (Macquarie University) and Astralis-AITC (ANU) are now in their third successful year of maintaining 19 data processing pipelines used by the VLT, as a part of the ESO Pipelines Project. VLT software pipelines are used to support astronomers with the calibration, reduction and analysis of the various raw data products of the VLT. This project between ESO and the Astralis Instrumentation Consortium now supports 22 software components – read more about it here in the ESO blog article by Nuwanthika Fernando from Astralis-AAO.

The Milky Way hangs over the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in this spellbinding panorama taken at ESO's Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert, Chile. Credit: F. Char/ ESO.

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 DISR 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 DISR’s ESO Coordinating Group, and AAL staff also serve on the working group that is helping DISR 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.


Australia’s Strategic Partnership with ESO is made possible by the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR). 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.