Optical astronomy in Australia

Maintaining Australia’s optical astronomy capability

The 2017-18 Budget measure ‘Maintaining Australia’s Optical Astronomy Capability’ provides $26.1 million over the forward estimates ($119.2 million over a decade) in new government funding to secure Australia’s ongoing pre-eminence in optical astronomy research, industry engagement, and instrumentation.

The measure has three primary elements.

  • An Australian Government commitment to a 10-year Strategic Partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the pre-eminent intergovernmental science and technology organisation in astronomy with 15 member states.
  • Transition of the operations of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), located at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran NSW, from the Commonwealth to the university sector.
  • The establishment of a national optical instrumentation capability, operated by a research sector consortium, which will build on and further develop the world-class instrumentation functions of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO).

The measure is the result of consultation between the government and the Australian astronomy community to develop a plan that maintains national optical astronomy capabilities while providing access to large-scale infrastructure available only through international collaboration. In the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy (2016-2025), the Australian astronomy community emphasised the need to continue to support the AAT and its capabilities, to improve access to 8-metre class optical astronomy infrastructure not available in Australia, and to become a global partner in optical astronomy research. The measure is a response to these strategic priorities.

Strategic Partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO)

The Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, and the ESO Director General, Prof Tim de Zeeuw, immediately after signing the Australia-ESO Strategic Partnership agreement.

On Tuesday 11 July 2017, the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, joined the Director-General of ESO, Professor Tim de Zeeuw, to sign the 10-year Strategic Partnership between Australia and ESO. The event was officiated by the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt and the then President of the Astronomical Society of Australia, Professor Virginia Kilborn.

The unique offer of a strategic partnership reflects ESO’s strong desire for Australian participation and global recognition of Australian astronomy research excellence, following many years of discussions between ESO and leaders of the Australian astronomy community. It provides Australia with a timely and valuable opportunity to meet the astronomy community’s most pressing infrastructure needs.

About the ESO

ESO designs, constructs and operates astronomy research facilities to enable important scientific discoveries, and plays a leading role in promoting and organising international research cooperation. It operates three world-class observing sites in the Atacama Desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.

The ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), comprising four 8.2 metre diameter telescopes, at Paranal, Chile. Image credit: ESO.

Each site hosts multiple telescopes operated by ESO and other organisations. These are some of the world’s most advanced optical and infrared telescopes, which observe a different part of the spectrum from radio telescopes, like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). For further information on the telescopes, please visit the ESO website.

Competing for time on the suite of telescopes and instruments at ESO’s La Silla and Paranal Observatories

The Strategic Partnership allows Australian astronomers to access the 8‑metre telescopes and many others, at ESO’s La Silla and Paranal Observatories in the Atacama Mountains of Chile, among the world’s best sites for optical astronomy. For the first time, Australians are now eligible to compete for ESO telescope observing time alongside astronomers based in ESO member states.

The ESO Director for Science, Professor Rob Ivison plans to conduct a five day roadshow around Australia over a five day period: Monday 18 September to Friday 22 September 2017. Ahead of the ESO Period 101 application deadline, Thursday 28 September 2017, Professor Ivison will provide advice to astronomers based in Australia on the process of applying for time for observing on ESO telescopes.

The roadshow will visit AAO, Mount Stromlo, Swinburne University, University of Western Australia and Brisbane. For more information contact Dr Stuart Ryder, the AAO Head of International Telescope Support.

In addition you can to view to a 5-minute insight into the peer-review process by which ESO allocates time on its telescopes, with around 900 proposals received each semester, involving over 3,500 different astronomers from around 50 countries.

Australia’s domestic optical astronomy capability

Future operation of the Anglo-Australian Telescope

From 1 July 2018, a consortium of Australian universities led by the ANU will operate the 3.9-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) alongside the ANU’s astronomy infrastructure at Siding Spring Observatory. The ANU is working closely with Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) and several Australian universities to establish this consortium. This new arrangement will ensure that the AAT continues to operate for at least 7 years for the benefit of Australian astronomy.

The AAT’s ongoing ability to support the scientific observations required by the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO‑3D) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) is a key part of Australia’s astronomical research capability.

A national optical astronomy instrumentation capability

To retain and further develop the world-class astronomical instrumentation functions of the AAO, a new research sector consortium will be established by 1 July 2018. It will combine existing instrumentation capabilities and expertise to create a new national capability which is expected to start as a hub based in Sydney.

The national capability will support industry collaboration and commercialisation. The consortium that forms around the Sydney hub will be positioned to capitalise on Australia’s Strategic Partnership with ESO and the Giant Magellan Telescope over the next decade.

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