AAL 2022/23 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. AAL is fully committed to supporting DISR as it looks to progress the business case for full membership of ESO, 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 current Partnership agreement.

Since the signing of the Australia-ESO Strategic Partnership in 2017, AAL has supported DISR by providing staff to track and maximise the benefits of the Partnership to Australia. This resourcing has enabled 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 Astralis-Macquarie’s Data Central, the database allows easy searching of proposals and publications and has streamlined the reporting to Australian stakeholders.

Tracking Australian VLT publications

Part of supporting DISR requires AAL to monitor not only proposal submissions and allocations, but also any refereed publications involving Australian-based astronomers that use data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) or Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). While ESO tracks all such publications itself through the ESO Telescope Bibliography, it does not distinguish them by author affiliation. Instead AAL uses a bibliography database developed by Astralis-Macquarie that checks the NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) on a regular basis for all new papers that appear to use ESO data with 1 or more Australian-based authors. These are validated by AAL staff to ensure these papers contain genuine new results or analyses from ESO instruments. The results are then made available publicly and are updated on a regular basis.

There are currently 2 ADS Libraries that can be accessed from the Statistics page of AAL’s ESO Forum:

As of mid-Oct 2023, the first list contains 51 papers, of which ~15% are published in the most prestigious journals Nature and Science. The second list contains over 1050 papers, about 1/2 of which have been since the start of Australia’s Strategic Partnership with ESO in mid-2017.

This stunning panorama shows the Milky Way galaxy arching above the platform of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, Chile. Credit: John Colosimo (colosimophotography.com)/ESO.

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 overall significant value that the engagement with ESO brings to the Australian astronomy community. This value has been particularly evident in cases where ESO access has led to time being allocated to large programs for Australian astronomers – a total of 4 programs awarded more than 100 nights in total.

Australian-based astronomers to take a deep dive into the cosmos with time awarded on one of ESO’s most powerful instruments.

During the 2022/23 period, two teams of astronomers led by The University of Sydney and by The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR/UWA) were each awarded substantial amounts of observing time on one of ESO’s most in-demand instruments – the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) – as part of ESO’s Large Program process.

Australian-based astronomers Jesse van de Sande (University of Sydney), Barbara Catinella and Luca Cortese (both from ICRAR/UWA) were awarded 317 hours and 173 hours respectively over the next two years, allowing them to lead international teams of astronomers to perform observations of the Milky Way’s galactic cousins and reveal the physics of star formation and galaxy evolution in some of the most massive structures in the Universe. 

The instrument in question, VLT/MUSE, is an integral field spectrograph yielding 3D views of galaxies, and observing time is highly sought-after by astronomers located in ESO member states and those located in Australia. Less than one in five requests submitted are approved every year. With such a competitive application process to navigate, the hundreds of hours awarded to the following projects demonstrates how well Australian-based astronomers are viewed on the world stage.

The winning projects

GECKOS – led by Dr Jesse van de Sande, University of Sydney

The GECKOS project aims to better understand our own Milky Way Galaxy’s unique evolutionary history by comparing it to its extragalactic cousins. A survey conducted by Jesse and his team will provide a detailed cross-section of 35 galaxies with similar properties to our own Galaxy, taking the unique approach of only observing galaxies that appear in a side-on orientation from our perspective here on Earth. Using MUSE, the team will be able to split the light they see coming from each galaxy into many different colours – a process known as spectroscopy. MUSE is able to make 90,000 of these detections during a single observation run, building a three-dimensional map of the individual colours present in the captured light from the target galaxy. This will allow the GECKOS team to determine the chemical composition of its stars and gas, with the side-on viewpoint also giving them a chance to study vertical outflows of gas and detect faint signatures that were left behind by small galaxy mergers a long time ago.

The disk galaxies targeted by GECKOS were selected to have a wide range of internal structures and star-formation rates, allowing the team to probe a variety of different evolutionary histories. GECKOS will be transformative by moving away from single observations of edge-on galaxies to a larger sample that reflects all types of disk galaxies we see in the nearby Universe. With these detailed measurements, the GECKOS team hopes to answer the one crucial question about galaxy evolution that cannot be solved by looking at our Milky Way alone – how important are external events, like mergers with satellite galaxies, compared with the internal processes that already happen inside the galaxy?

GECKOS will give us an exquisite view of how galaxies like our own Milky Way may have evolved over time, which is only possible by having access to MUSE – the world’s best panoramic integral-field spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope, through Australia’s strategic partnership with ESO.” Dr Jesse van de Sande, University of Sydney


MAUVE – led by A/Prof Barbara Catinella and A/Prof Luca Cortese, ICRAR/UWA

The MAUVE program is designed to reveal the physics of star formation and galaxy evolution in the most massive structures in the Universe – galaxy clusters. The study led by Barbara and Luca will investigate what happens within the disks of 40 individual galaxies that move through the dense environments of massive galaxy clusters. It is understood that galaxies plunging into clusters come into contact with the hot plasma spread throughout the cluster, known as the intergalactic medium. The interaction with this plasma strips away the cold gas on the outer regions of galaxies, thus reducing the total amount of fuel available for making new stars. Even in the densest parts of the cluster, however, there is still evidence for significant star formation ­– a mystery that the team led by Barbara and Luca is looking to solve with access to VLT/MUSE.

The team will also seek to reconstruct the history of star formation in cluster galaxies for the first time, assess how gas outflows affect the clusters overall, and deliver rich data sets using MUSE that will help the next generation of astronomers studying these environments. Building on an existing study using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) – operating at the highest radio frequencies – MAUVE aims to showcase Australia’s growing expertise in galaxy evolution studies, and how the combined power of optical spectroscopy and radio observation is fast making our astronomers world leaders in this field.

We are extremely excited about this project and the unexpected discoveries to come ­– only possible thanks to the Strategic Partnership Agreement between ESO and the Australian Government.” A/Prof Barbara Catinella, ICRAR/UWA

“This showcases the type of opportunities that a full Australian membership of ESO could provide to Australian researchers, not only in terms of scientific discoveries but also in the development of new techniques of analysis and training future generations of scientists.” A/Prof Luca Cortese, ICRAR/UWA

See AAL’s news story for details on the GECKOS and MAUVE collaborations.

Some of the target galaxies for the GECKOS team. From left: NGC 5010, NGC 5775, and NGC 1032. Credit for each image: ESA/Hubble & NASA.
Five galaxies from the MAUVE sample. From left: NGC 4522 (NASA & ESA), NGC 4302 / NGC 4298 (NASA, ESA, and M. Mutchler (STScI)), and NGC 4568 / NGC 4567 (International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA).
ESO delegation visit to Australia.

A delegation from ESO visited Australia between 28 November and 2 December 2022. The delegation was led by Professor Xavier Barcons (ESO Director General) and included Professor Linda Tacconi (ESO Council President) Ms Laura Comendador Frutos (Head of Executive Office of the Director General), and Professor Rob Ivison (ESO Director for Science). Their visit was hosted by DISR.

While in Australia, the ESO delegation visited sites in Perth, Canberra and Sydney, starting in Perth at the University of Western Australia / ICRAR and Pawsey Supercomputing Centre. Travelling to Canberra, the delegation then had several engagements at ANU (on the main campus and at AITC, Mt Stromlo), while their time in Sydney at the end of the visit saw them attend events at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney. The Macquarie event focused on Data and Computing while the session at the University of Sydney centred around industry engagement and commercialisation.

In terms of defining key outcomes, the visit gave astronomers greater clarity as to ESO’s current priorities and where opportunities may lie in future for collaboration. An example of this can be seen via ESO’s commitment to the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which is currently under construction, and its associated instruments. While this may be ESO’s current focus, the delegation made it clear that they were very keen to discover other ways Australia could be involved, including how we could provide some assistance to this enormous undertaking (the ELT).

This feedback alone gave Australian astronomers and government officials useful insight into ESO’s priorities, challenges and future opportunities. Combined with the many other learnings emerging from the visit (including the opportunity for potential synergies between the SKA and ESO), AAL will continue to work with the National Committee for Astronomy, the Astronomical Society of Australia and the community to support DISR in preparing the case for full Australian membership of ESO.

Further highlights of the Strategic Partnership

In the 2022/23 period, there were other impressive results from the ESO-Australia strategic partnership, including:

  • The discovery and confirmation of a planet in the process of forming (protoplanet) in the disc surrounding a nearby star, using the SPHERE instrument at the VLT. Careful analysis of the data revealed the protoplanet was slightly larger than Jupiter and at a distance from its host star source of 37 astronomical units – slightly further than the orbit of Neptune. See more about this discovery here.
  • A team from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA) at University of Sydney developed a novel way of studying stars in very crowded areas of the sky – like in the middle of the Milky Way (known as the galactic bulge). The team used data from the MUSE instrument on the VLT to see what elements are present in the stars’ atmospheres. See more here.
  • A survey to confirm some of the strongest and brightest gravitational lens candidates was underway early in the 2022/23 period, using the VLT. Gravitational lensing works like a magnifying glass, taking advantage of how light will bend around an object with large mass in the foreground of an observation (like a galaxy), giving astronomers a unique view of another galaxy that is sitting far behind it. The object in the background is older and further away than the one in the foreground, thanks to the concept of ‘look-back time’ (see the images below and more on this story here):

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 supporting 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.

This artist’s rendering shows the Extremely Large Telescope in operation on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile. The telescope is shown using lasers to create artificial stars high in the atmosphere. The first stone ceremony for the telescope was attended by the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, on 26 May 2017. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.


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.