Decades of discovery: The ESO celebrates 50 years in Chile

The astronomical center marks the occasion with events featuring astronauts and experts from all over Europe.

The first image of an exoplanet, the oldest known star in the Milky Way, flares from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, these are just a few of the entries on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) list of its top ten astronomical discoveries.  In 50 years, though, the Chile-based science center’s accomplishments go way beyond this short list.

Nov. 6 marks exactly 50 years since the members of the ESO signed the Convenio agreement with Chile establishing the Andean nation as the home in the Southern Hemisphere. The group would set up its headquarters in Santiago, later building its impressive observatory beneath the clear dark skies of the Atacama Desert.

Since that first agreement was signed, the relationship between the organization and Chile has flourished. With the building of the Very Large Telescope (VLT), its involvement in the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the planned construction of the Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), the already groundbreaking astronomy body — and its partnership with its host country — is only continuing to expand and develop.

“During these 50 years the government of Chile and ESO have managed to build a scientific and cultural bridge between Chile and Europe. This collaboration has been crucial for both Europe and Chile to reach the position they enjoy today, in the world’s astronomical scenario,”  Fernando Comerón, ESO Representative in Chile, said. “We want to continue extending this relationship and we are certain that with challenges such as the construction of the Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), in the near future, we shall achieve this goal.”

In celebration of half a century of innovation, cooperation, and discovery, events are being held across Chile. Many of the embassies of participating countries are hosting astronauts and astronomical experts from their own corners of the globe to share their experiences and passions for the many mysteries outside of our atmosphere.

Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque from the European Space Agency (ESA) spoke last week at the observatory’s kick-off event, “Science and Art — 50 Years of ESO in Chile,” organized by the Spanish Embassy. Duque, who has travelled to space twice, led a public discussion at the Centro Cultural de España in Santiago.

The Swiss embassy is set to host Claude Nicollier, Swiss astronaut from the ESA, on Dec. 2 at the Universidad de Andres Bello. The astronaut will be talking about his spacewalks during his four journeys into space, and what he sees as the challenges and benefits of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope project.

Highlighting the beneficial relationship between Chile and the ESO, the German and French embassies are organizing a “Café con Ciencias” or Coffee with Science event that will include Luis Barrera, a Chilean astrophysicist; Manuela Bulnes, a Chilean expert on indigenous Mapuche cosmology; Linda Schmidtobreick, a German astronomer at the ESO; and Julien Milli, a French astronomer at ESO on December 4 at the Goethe Institut.
Throughout the anniversary celebrations and events, always at the forefront is the recognition of the valuable relationship between Chile and the international team of scientists and governments that has made all of these achievements possible.

“The relationship between the ESO and Chile is an example of the great achievements that can be reached through international cooperation. Through the ESO, we have strengthened our bonds in scientific and astro-engineering areas with each of the member states in this organisation,” Ambassador Gabriel Rodríguez of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said during an official launch of these activities. “We join the celebrations on this 50th anniversary and renew our commitment towards the protection of the Chilean sky, for the exploration of the cosmos.”