In recent years the E-ELT project, Europe’s flagship next-generation optical observatory, seems to have gone from strength to strength: in 2010-2011, ESO Council officially gave the green light to the baseline technical design of the telescope (with the primary mirror slightly reduced in size), several member countries pledged their support for the project, others announced substantial investments into the development of hardware and instrumentation, and crucially, membership fees from giant new member state Brazil looked set to provide a major boost to the project’s financial coffers.
But apparently the E-ELT has hit a snag. This article in Brazilian publication Veja talks about Brazil’s failure to ratify the accession to ESO and support for the E-ELT project because of financial difficulties in 2011. Although an agreement was signed between ESO and the then science minister of Brazil in December 2010, Brazil’s parliament has yet to give its approval. Since then, Brazil’s been through general elections, and the new science minister hasn’t been forthcoming in continuing this approval process.
As Brazil’s contribution to ESO is crucial for the project to go ahead as long as no other new members join, the European members’ governments cannot now commit until Brazil formally comes into the club, and the project has been put on hold. ESO Director-General Tim De Zeeuw made some strong statements to the press about Brazil dragging its feet on the ratification, saying that the current accession conditions cannot be guaranteed beyond mid-2012, and new countries are lines up to join ESO if Brazil drop out. The article lists Australia, Israel, Russia, Poland and Estonia as potential new members.
An awkward point is that following the initial agreement in late 2010, Brazilian astronomers were already given full access to ESO telescope time. If Brazil now fail to ratify their accession, that privilege may be revoked again. That would be a big shame for their observers, who may have already planned multi-semester projects on ESO’s telescopes.
I can imagine that ESO really (really!) don’t want to start having negotiations with new member states at this point, as that’s likely to set the project back even further. Meanwhile the instrumentation community in Europe is working hard to keep the instrumentation projects for the new telescope alive, funded and staffed before getting the go ahead for the next phase of development. I hope it happens soon!
Thanks to friendly Portuguese colleague Elisabete da Cunha for translating the article.
Image: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/ESO