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Heavens open up to UK astronomers


A significant milestone for British and European science occurred today [8th July 2002] when the Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) met in London. At this historic meeting the UK was formally welcomed into ESO by the other nine member states.

The UK, one of the leading nations in astronomical research, now joins what is probably the world`s leading astronomical observatory. British astronomers now have access to some of the world`s most advanced telescopes and a major stake in future developments including the vast 100-metre OWL [Overwhelmingly Large Telescope] project.

UK astronomers will now be able to use the four 8.2-metre and several 1.8-metre telescopes that comprise the Very Large Telescope [VLT] facility located in the northern part of the Atacama desert in Chile, as well as two 4-m class telescopes and several smaller ones at the ESO La Silla observatory further south. The UK will also benefit from increased involvement in the design and construction of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array [ALMA], a network of 64 twelve-metre telescopes also sited in Chile, and play a defining role in ESO`s 100-metre Overwhelmingly Large [OWL] telescope.

Science and Innovation Minister, Lord Sainsbury said, " I am sure I speak for the entire UK astronomy community when I say how much we are looking forward to participating in ESO and taking advantage of its marvellous facilities. I hope very much the UK`s participation will lead to a strengthening of ESO and a widening of its capabilities for astronomical research."

Sir Martin Rees, The Astronomer Royal, said," Joining ESO is good for UK science, and I think good for Europe as well. It offers us access to the VLT`s 8m class telescopes and restores the UK`s full competitiveness in optical astronomy. We`re now guaranteed full involvement in ALMA and in the next generation of giant optical instruments - projects that will be at the forefront of the research in the next decade and beyond. Moreover, our commitment to ESO should enhance its chances of forging ahead of the US in these technically challenging and high profile scientific projects. UK membership of ESO is a significant and welcome outcome of this government`s increasing investment in science."

Prof. Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council [PPARC], the UK`s strategic science investment agency said, " The United Kingdom already participates in Europe`s flagship particle physics research and the space science research programmes through membership of CERN and the European Space Agency. Both of which provide UK scientists with access to world-class facilities that, on a national basis alone, we could not begin to consider. Joining ESO consolidates this strategy for UK astronomers and redresses the balance of UK ground based facilities compared to other European countries, Japan and the US".

The ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, is "delighted that the UK has joined our organisation. When ESO was created nearly 40 years ago, the UK was planning for its own facilities and decided not to join. However, the impressive scientific and technological advances since then, coupled with ESO`s emergence as a prime player on the European research scene have convinced our UK colleagues of the great advantages of presenting a united European face in astronomy through ESO".

Ian Halliday added," Membership of ESO will ensure that UK astronomy remains at the cutting edge of scientific research and discovery, whilst playing an integral role in developing the next generation of ground based facilities. This strategy also endorses the recommendations of the `International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy`, an independent review which recommended joining ESO".

Julia Maddock | AlphaGalileo
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