Brazil Cuts a Deal to Join European Astronomers

30 December 2010 4:07 pm

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—Hoping to secure time on some of the world's most powerful telescopes, Brazil will pay more than €250 million over a decade to become a member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The deal, signed on Wednesday by Brazil's Ministry of Science & Technology and ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw, will make Brazil the 15th member of ESO and the first from outside Europe, ESO said in a statement. ESO's telescopes are located in the host country of Chile.

The agreement is part of a bid by Brazil's government to lift the quality of domestic science by joining big international projects. Brazil has also been negotiating entry into Europe's CERN particle accelerator.

The deal came as a surprise to Brazil's small astronomy community. "It's a lot of money and there are people who don't agree that Brazil should be associated with ESO," says Claúdio Bastos, an astronomer at Brazil's National Observatory.

But Bastos says Brazil's proximity to Chile and the high quality of ESO's telescopes likely weighed in the calculation. "It's a very good location. You get very good nights there. You are almost guaranteed to get results," Bastos says.

ESO was formed in 1962 to give European astronomers access to the southern skies. Bringing on new members could help pay for new instruments like the 42-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) at Paranal in Chile's Atacama Desert. ESO spokesperson Lars Lindberg Christensen said the Brazil deal reflects the natural evolution of the organization, which he said was in preliminary negotiations with other non-European nations. "ESO will continue as a European organization, but it has reached a level maturity now that allows more extensive global collaboration," Christensen said.

Adding new members will increase competition for telescope time, which is allotted to researchers based on the scientific merit of proposals. "If you added a lot of new member states you would increase the pressure on the observatories. On the other hand, you can build new observatories," Christensen said.

Brazilian science minister Sérgio Rezende told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that ESO agreed to lower the price of membership by 50% after Brazilian negotiators balked. According to Folha, Brazil will be exempt from paying an extra fee associated with construction of the E-ELT and will also pay reduced annual membership dues.

Brazil's congress must ratify the deal. After that, it will be up to Brazilian astronomers to make Brazilian membership worthwhile. "The competition for telescope nights will be very tough," says Bastos.

*This item has been corrected at 11:30 a.m., 3 January. Claúdio Bastos is with the National Observatory, not the National Astrophysics Laboratory.

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