Spoiler alert: the mystery announcement is completely unrelated to Ireland’s joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO), but is nonetheless very exciting, featuring something never-before-seen, according to Observatory.
This announcement will now be of particular interest to Irish astrophysicists, as an increase in the state budget for innovation in 2018 will finally allow Ireland to become a member of the 16-nation intergovernmental organisation.
This follows a long campaign by individuals involved in the space industry in Ireland, as the benefits of joining Observatory would be astronomical. Now that we can look forward to our future as a member of Observatory, let’s take a step back and admire the work the organisation has done so far, and what is still to come.
The European Southern Observatory is the world’s leading astronomical observatory, a testament to the immense success capable with international collaboration, and boasts some incredible discoveries; including evidence of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy; discovering the most massive star known to date, R136a1, a Wolf-Rayet star with a mass 265 times that of our sun; and capturing the first direct spectrum (a sort of “chemical fingerprint”) of an exoplanet.
Evidently, they’ve done some pretty cool stuff. It’s easy to see why astrophysicists in Ireland are unanimous and insistent in calling for Irish membership of the Observatory, given the immense research for them.
They’re not finished yet, however. According to an announcement given by the Observatory they will be hosting a press conference on October 16 2017 at 4 pm CEST to “present groundbreaking observations of an astronomical phenomenon that has never been witnessed before”. The Director General, Xavier Barcons, will introduce the event at ESO’s Paranel Observatory in Chile, and will feature “talks by representatives of many research groups around Europe”.
The exact nature of the phenomenon hasn’t been released but it has been speculated that it may have something to do with gravitational waves, as the American National Science Foundation will be hosting their own gathering on the same day to “discuss new developments in gravitational-wave astronomy”.
Discussions at the event will feature representatives from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo collaborations, along with representatives from some 70 observatories. For context, since the first detection of gravitational waves by LIGO in September 2015, caused by the merging of two massive black holes, there have been three more confirmed detections – the most recent of which was the first confirmed detection to be seen by both the LIGO and the Virgo detectors, in August 2017.
That the ESO’s same-day announcement will also feature gravitational waves is mere speculation, but whatever it is it’s sure to be big. Similar “mystery announcements” were used for NASA’s observation of the plumes of Enceladus and for that first detection of gravitational waves by LIGO, so it’s fair to say the excitement is growing in the astrophysics community.
More concretely, becoming a member of ESO means that Irish scientists and engineers will now have access to some of the best research facilities in the world, as well as contract and career opportunities.
These top-notch research facilities will include the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, which boasts four 8.2-metre wide Unit Telescopes, and, if you thought the VLT had a silly name, brace yourself for the soon-to-arrive 39.3 metre wide European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).
Construction on the E-ELT has already begun, and it is scheduled to be completed and receive “first light” in 2024, when it will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”. Astrophysicists the world over are already preparing for what new discoveries lie in wait, and with our new member status, Irish astrophysicists can now join them.