(Night) Sky’s the Limit for Brazilian Astronomers

International consortia developing large-scale astronomical telescopes for intergalactic observations, are increasingly turning to Brazil as new team member with cash to invest.

Nature  in February reported that  São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is evaluating a proposal that would see it invest US$40 million in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), one of three planned megatelescopes. The 25-metre facility, will be built at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. You can read the article by clicking here.

While it might be tempting to view Brazil as an arriviste nation using its cheqebook to  make up for late arrival in this branch of science, this is hardly the case.  Dom Pedro II (1831-1889)  Brazil’s last emperor, was a keen astronomer with his own observatory. Brazil’s National Observatory was founded in 1827 by Dom Pedro’s father (three years before the founding of the US Naval Observatory).

Nebula views from ESO's ELT telescope in Andes

Nebula views from ESO’s ELT telescope in Andes

Thanks to its long-standing stakes in SOAR  (the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research) in the Andes and Gemini, (which has “twin” telescopes in the Chilean Andes and in Hawaii), Brazil is seeing its production of astronomy-related scientific papers speeding ahead (from 150 studies in 1995 to 230 in 2010).

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 guaranteed by funding agencies  including the São Paulo Research Foundation ( FAPESP)

Now the growth trend is set to accelerate significantly as Brazil invests more in astronomy.

– At the Observatorio Astrofísico de Javalambre (OAJ) in northern Spain, Brazil is an active member of the J-PAS project. This astrophysical survey project will begin measuring the physics of the expanding universe in 2014.

J-PAS is a new astronomical facility dedicated to mapping the observable Universe in 56 colors. The 2.5m mirror of the main telescope, combined with a 1.2 Giga-pixel camera containing an array of 14 CCDs, will produce high-quality images and a unique spectral resolution over the whole area of the survey, casting a new picture of the cosmos.

Javalambre Site in N Spain

Late in 2013, technicians commenced the opto-mechanical alignment of the mirrors at the new facility. During early 2014, the First Light Camera will be integrated to make verification tests and the telescope’s tune-up before installing the T80Cam.

The international collaboration that is designing, financing and managing the project is a consortium of Spanish and Brazilian institutions, funding agencies and universities. The facility is operated by CEFCA in Teruel, Spain, and the team of scientists and engineers includes more than 100 people from Brazil, Spain, the U.S.A. and other countries.

Javalambre cam

Javalambre camera

Brazil’s funding consortium of institutions is made up of federal agencies including Finep and the National Observatory, and FAPESP.

During 2014 and beyond, the pace will quicken further as another two mega-telescope construction projects get underway, backed by international consortia. 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 observation.

– The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is planned by a consortium of institutions in the United States, Australia and South Korea.


Artist view of GMT mirror array.

So far, Brazil does not have any participation in the ownership club. But one Brazilian funding agency, FAPESP, is actively evaluating an investment 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.

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.

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 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.

Work on the telescope itself is already advanced. During 2013, The GMT’s third primary mirror was unveiled at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. The combined surface area of the three mirrors created to date surpasses that of any existing telescope and will help enable astronomers to peer more deeply into space than ever before once the telescope is completed.


Artist view of GMT location in Chilean Andes

Among the largest in the world, each of the telescope’s seven mirrors will span 8.4 meters (or 27.5 feet) in diameter. They will be lightweight, rigid, and able to quickly adapt to their surrounding temperatures, thanks to a honeycomb-shaped inner core design that includes hollow spaces throughout.

Should Brazil decide to invest in the GMT, then 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).

“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.

– The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), is planned by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Brazil’s ratification as a member of ESO is currently pending, but it is listed as one of the supporter nations backing the project and its state-of-the-art facilities for astronomers. 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 in late 2013.

ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in the Atacama Desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.  ESO is the most productive astronomical observatory in the world, which annually results in many peer-reviewed publications: in 2010 alone, over 750 refereed papers based on ESO data were published.

The 2600 m high Paranal site with the Very Large Telescope array (VLT) is the flagship facility of European astronomy. The VLT is a most unusual telescope. It is not just one, but an array of four “Unit Telescopes”, each with a main mirror of 8.2 metres in diameter. With one such telescope, images of celestial objects as faint as magnitude 30 have been obtained in a one-hour exposure. This corresponds to seeing objects that are four billion times fainter than those seen with the naked eye.

The next step beyond the VLT is to build the European Extremely Large optical/infrared Telescope (E-ELT) with a 39-metre primary mirror. The E-ELT will be “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world. The E-ELT will address many of the most pressing unsolved questions in astronomy. It may, eventually, revolutionise our perception of the Universe, much as Galileo’s telescope did, 400 years ago.


ESO’s E-ELT when completed (artist view)

With construction slated to begin in 2014, the E-ELT will be nestled on top of a mountain in Chile’s Cerro Armazones range, and 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.

ESO nebula banner

Nebula views from ESO telescope.

To date, Brazilian astronomers have made only sporadic use of the ESO, logging only around 2% of telescope time.  But this too could change: Recently, the ESO 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.

With the exception of particle physics, no field of big-ticket science is so suitable for international cooperation as astronomy – making Brazil’s participation and its growing research budgets highly valued.

To find out more about the work of Brazilian astronomers with the  ESO, you can read an article about astronomer  Dimitri Alexei Gadotti by clicking here.  Gadotti — funded by a  FAPESP fellowship —  stays for periods of a week to 10 days at the astronomical complex situated on a mountain 2,600 meters high in the middle of the Atacama Desert, 130 kilometers from the Chilean coastal city of Antofagasta. He is one of the 25 European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers in Paranal, Chile. He conducts his work in support of observations made using the array of telescopes that make up the Paranal Observatory.

This new push into the heavens — and the money  being put behind it — suggests Brazil’s engagement with science is much more than simply star-gazing.

Click here to read a complete report on developments in astronomy by Brazilian journalist Elton Alisson.



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