I am happy to introduce to readers of The Catholic Astronomer to yet another guest blogger. Fernando Comerón is an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory. A while back he sent me an e-mail in response to my post about Lunar Eavesdropping. In his e-mail he described use of an 8.2 m telescope! “Back in 2009, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, I was granted observing time at Unit 4 of ESO’s 8.2m Very Large Telescope in Chile to obtain a series of infrared images of Tranquility Base at the time of sunset using NACO, an adaptive optics-assisted camera, using a nearby illuminated peak as the wavefront sensing reference to obtain a high Strehl ratio. As a result of the observations I got a large number of extremely detailed images of the area—probably the sharpest images of the area ever obtained from the ground.” When he contributed to The Catholic Astronomer some remarks regarding the ESO and the confirmation of TESS exoplanet candidates, I invited him to do a guest post. I figured that plenty of readers would enjoy hearing from someone who has commanded some of the largest telescopes in the world. He graciously agreed to my request, and here we are! Enjoy the read. For most of us, the closest we will come to using an 8.2 meter telescope is to read his post!
Fernando Comerón, 2 Oct 2018
You probably know the story. Two workers in the Middle Age were laying bricks on a wall when somebody passing by asked them what they were doing. One of them answered,“I am laying bricks on this wall”. And the other one said, “I am building a cathedral”. Although I have just laid a few bricks on its walls, I feel privileged for helping to build a sort of modern-time astronomical cathedral by being a staff astronomer at ESO, the European Southern Observatory. Those of you who have been reading this blog for some years might remember the posts by Brother Guy and Katie Steinke back in 2015 describing the Vatican Observatory Foundation tour of Chilean observatories, in which ESO’s sites featured prominently. Those sites host some of the most advanced telescopes and astronomical instrumentation in the world nowadays, and there is more to come in the future.
ESO is in a sense a beautiful materialization of the power of astronomy to bring people together. In this case, the visionary people who first got together to develop the idea of ESO were some European astronomers, in the post-war Europe of the early 1950s, who saw the need and the value of pooling efforts to build a major observatory giving European astronomers the capabilities to do first-class research in observational astronomy and promote international cooperation in this way. In other words, ESO’s goal was to do together what individual countries could not do separately. This is how ESO came to be, with its first five member states—Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium. Interestingly, on the very same day when the ESO convention was signed, Friday 5th October 1962, the first James Bond movie (“Dr. No”) premiered in UK cinemas, and The Beatles released their first record (“Love me do”). A day for history!
ESO has grown in these past five decades, more countries have joined, and just one week ago we celebrated the official accession of Ireland, our sixteenth member state. ESO’s goal of building and operating world-class observing facilities remains its main purpose, but its meaning has evolved to keep pace with technological evolution. ESO was founded in 1962 with the goal of building a 3.6 meter telescope, which was among the largest in the Southern hemisphere when it came into operation in 1976. Now, ESO operates the VLT (Very Large Telescope), an array of 8.2 meter telescopes, each of them among the best in the world, and is fully engaged in the construction of the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), which will become the largest in the world when it finishes construction toward the middle of the next decade. ESO is also one of the three partners that built and operate ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter and submillimeter Array of radiotelescopes. All those facilities are located under the superb skies of the Atacama desert in Chile, where, by the way, the 3.6 meter telescope continues in healthy operations, over forty years after seeing first light.
Those are exciting developments that I have been able to witness, and honored to contribute to, even if just a little, in my over twenty years at ESO, most of the time involved in support to observatory operations from the central headquarters near Munich, Germany. On the night when the first unit of the VLT saw first light I happened to be in Chile, albeit on the “wrong” mountain—I was observing at La Silla, the observatory home to the veteran 3.6 m telescope, while the action was going on at Paranal, where the VLT is located, some 700 km further North. But some months later, at the time when commissioning of the VLT was well advanced, I spent many nights on Paranal, sometimes being the only astronomer on the mountain. Having perhaps the best telescope in the world under my command was a pure dream situation for any astronomer, but also a very frustrating one because, out of fair play to the rest of the world astronomical community that would not have access to that wonderful machine until the commissioning was completed, I was allowed to do only observations of technical value, and nothing that would yield scientific results. In the end it didn’t matter much, as soon afterward I joined the rest of the astronomers who regularly used the VLT for their own research, which I continue to do to this day.
My most recent highlight has been the end of my five-year term as ESO representative in Chile, which has provided me the curious combination, I guess that not very common among active scientists, of being at the same time a member of the diplomatic corps in that country as a representative of an International Organization—such things can happen only at places like ESO.
What a privilege to see the cathedral growing from inside. I keep laying my bricks!