From ESOblog: “Shaping the future”

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From ESOblog

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17 May 2019

Pushing the limits of our knowledge about the Universe requires the constant development of new trailblazing technologies. We speak to Mark Casali, former Head of ESO’s Technology Development Programme to find out more about how ESO keeps itself at the cutting-edge of scientific research.

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Mark Casali

Q. Firstly, could you tell us about ESO’s Technology Development Programme?

A. We are a team of about a dozen people developing new technology that enables ESO to reach its ambitious scientific goals. This means we work on concepts with a fairly long timeframe — looking into completely innovative techniques and developing technology for astronomical instruments that will exist in the future, rather than those that exist today.

Technology takes a long time to emerge, so we can’t wait to develop it until we want to produce an instrument that does something specific. Rather we need to already have the technology in place before the instrument is developed, in order to speed up production.

One question people often ask is how we decide what new technology to explore. Of course, there are always more brilliant ideas than funds available, but our research is science-driven, meaning that when developing new technology we always focus on things that will eventually enable us to do the most exciting science.

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The main mirror of the Extremely Large Telescope is visible at the centre of this image. It consists of 798 segments that together form a mirror 39 metres wide.
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/ACe Consortium

Q. What kind of new technology are you developing at the moment?

A. To avoid wasted efforts, we tend to focus our work into themes, for example detectors or adaptive optics. This means that we solve many problems in a single area so that area can move forward. This is more efficient than investing in several different areas and making only a small amount of progress in each.

Detectors are the key element of any astronomical instrument — they are like the eyes that see the light from the Universe. Many very good detectors exist commercially, but often it’s useful to have detectors with really specific properties. So we put a lot of effort into developing new detectors.

Another current focus area is lasers, which can be used to sharpen images by creating artificial stars, in a technique called adaptive optics. We also develop new mirror technology, for example mirrors that can change shape to create sharper images.

Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO_s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT, a major asset of the Adaptive Optics system

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The Paranal engineer Gerhard Hüdepohl checks the huge camera attached at the Cassegrain focus of VISTA, directly below the cell of the main mirror. VISTA´s powerful eye is a 3-tonne camera containing 16 special detectors sensitive to infrared light with a combined total of 67 megapixels. It will have widest coverage of any astronomical near-infrared camera. VISTA is the largest telescope in the world dedicated to surveying the sky at near-infrared wavelengths. Credit: ESO

Q. Do you develop all of this new technology here at ESO?

A. We actually only do about half of the technology development in house, and the other half is contracted out to external industry, universities or institutes around Europe. The decision to work on projects internally or externally depends on factors like whether we have the relevant expertise within our small team.

Working with external partners is really a collaboration from which both parties benefit. We gain expertise, as well as a good quality product, because industry usually provides well-engineered products that are reliable and don’t break down easily. Also working with industrial partners gives us access to expensive machinery that we wouldn’t be able to afford ourselves for a single project. On the other hand, we are really looking to develop cutting-edge technology, so when we fund a company to develop something new, they really get ahead of the pack and could be the only company to be producing a certain product commercially. It’s a win-win for all involved!

Working with industrial, academic and institutional partners also allows us to support our Member States, providing them with a return on the money they invest in ESO. Our collaborations with external partners occur through calls to tender and typically last about two years.

Q. And what about the other way around? Does technology developed within ESO ever go on to have commercial success?

A. Occasionally, yes! Although we don’t have a specific department for technology transfer, it does happen organically every now and then.

For example, a couple of years ago we created a special laser called a Raman fibre laser that is used to create an artificial laser guide star by exciting sodium atoms high up in Earth’s atmosphere. We then signed a license agreement with two commercial partners for them to use this novel laser technology.

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ESO’s Raman fibre laser feeding the frequency-doubling Second Harmonic Generation unit,, which produces a 20W laser at 589 nm. The light is used to create an artificial laser guide star by exciting sodium atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere at 90 km altitude. ESO has signed an agreement to license its cutting-edge laser technology to two commercial partners, Toptica Photonics and MPB Communications. This marks the first time that ESO has transferred patented technology and know-how to the private sector, offering significant opportunities both for business and for ESO. Credit: ESO

Q. The Technology Development Programme sounds like an interesting place to work. What experience do you have that made you a good fit to oversee such a department?

A. After a PhD in astronomy and then a stint as a researcher, I got involved in telescope construction projects. I believe that this combination of scientific and technical understanding was really helpful in my role.

I do agree that this is a great team to work in! Not only is it really interesting to bring ideas for revolutionary technology through to actual deliverables, but I also feel that it’s a very important part of ESO’s work. Without new and improved technology, we wouldn’t be able to continue to make new discoveries and remain at the forefront of astronomical research.

Q. Isn’t ESO involved in the European Union’s ATTRACT initiative to develop new technology?

A. ESO is indeed one of the partners in the ATTRACT consortium, which consists mostly of large European infrastructures like CERN and EMBL, as well as universities and some industrial partners. The consortium recently received funding from the European Commission to run a competition for ideas in detector and imaging technology. This could be applied to many different fields, for example detecting light for astronomical or medical applications, or imaging particles for particle physics applications.

We received over 1200 technology development ideas, of which 170 will be awarded 100 000 euros each. After a year and a half of work on their projects, a few of these will receive funding for a scale-up project. Hopefully these will include some astronomy-related projects!

Through ATTRACT, ESO is able to work with other big organisations to develop the European economy, and I believe that the initiative is improving lives by creating products, services, jobs and even new companies.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

A. Two things. The first being that the future of technology development at ESO is very bright; it’s likely that our programme will be supported and continue to grow long into the future. The second is that anybody can look at the list of ESO-developed technologies online, which we keep updated so that the public can see where their money goes.

See the full article here .


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ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo,


ESO LaSilla
ESO/Cerro LaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT 4 lasers on Yepun


ESO Vista Telescope
ESO/Vista Telescope at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

ESO NTT
ESO/NTT at Cerro LaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT Survey telescope
VLT Survey Telescope at Cerro Paranal with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).


ESO APEX
APEX Atacama Pathfinder 5,100 meters above sea level, at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in the Atacama desert.

Leiden MASCARA instrument, La Silla, located in the southern Atacama Desert 600 kilometres (370 mi) north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft)

Leiden MASCARA cabinet at ESO Cerro la Silla located in the southern Atacama Desert 600 kilometres (370 mi) north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft)

ESO Next Generation Transit Survey at Cerro Paranel, 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

ESO Speculoos telescopes four 1m-diameter robotic telescopes at ESO Paranal Observatory 2635 metres 8645 ft above sea level


ESO TAROT telescope at Paranal, 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

ESO ExTrA telescopes at Cerro LaSilla at an altitude of 2400 metres