Same sky, different insights: Danish-Chilean research collaboration on astronomy

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Chile has outstanding geographical and climatic qualities to do research in astronomy. Denmark has great resources and human capital to do cutting edge scientific research. Even though Chile and Denmark are 12.724 kilometres apart, if you look deeper, you can find great research and scientific collaboration between both countries.

Almost 70 years ago, in 1950, Chile began a period of sustained development for astronomy. Due to the incredibly clear skies of the county, international research centres started establishing observatories in their territory.

This process grew in the late years of 1960, when two of the most important astronomical institutions of the world; the European Organization for Astronomical Research (ESO) – and the Association of Universities for the Research in Astronomy of the United States (AURA), installed their observatories in Chile. Among those, the Inter-American Observatory of Cerro Tololo, and the La Silla Observatory, opened in 1969.

The collaboration between Denmark and Chile in the astronomical field, started as soon as Denmark joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 1967. In those years, Denmark also contributed into building the capacity of La Silla Observatory through the Danish telescope, which has been in use at La Silla since 1979.

This telescope and other facilities have allowed astronomers from all over the world to make several discoveries. At least, this was the experience of Morten Andersen, a Danish astronomer from University of Copenhagen, who works at the Gemini Observatory.

Morten visited Chile for the first time in 1999. At that time, he was conducting research at the Danish 1.54m telescope at La Silla. Since then, Morten has returned several times to La Silla, at Paranal and Las Campanas.

Currently he is involved in the development of new instrumentation that will enhance the astronomic knowledge in the upcoming years and will work in synergy with other facilities both in Chile and in the northern hemisphere.

“I am the Gemini project scientist for SCORPIO; a novel 8-arm imager and spectrograph that will be a facility instrument capable of following up newly discovered LSST targets in an effective manner”, states Andersen.

The instrument that Andersen is working on, is scheduled to be launched in 2022. “I am also involved in GNAO, an adaptive optics facility to be used at our sister telescope in Hawaii. This will build on the successful GeMS system currently in operation at Gemini South and provide high spatial resolution images and spectra from the Northern hemisphere using what is called a multiconjugate adaptive optics system. This uses several bright stars and sodium laser spots on the sky to correct for the earth’s atmosphere and provide images as sharp, or sharper, in the near-infrared as Hubble”, he explains.

Presently, Andersen spends roughly half of his time on functional duties and support for the Gemini Observatory. The remaining 50% of his time, he spends on research. “I am involved both in the daily operation at Gemini to help make the operations more efficient and to obtain the best science from our facility.  This includes helping the observer preparing their observations such that they can accomplish their scientific goals. It includes planning the observations for the night and to carry out observations”.

Science and Astronomy for a better society

“The European countries that operate in Chilean astronomy facilities have been a great opportunity for Chilean astronomy to grow not only as a science community, but also for the development of the country”, states Luis Chavarría, Director of the Astronomy Program in Conicyt, the Chilean government agency that is in charge of scientific research in astronomy.

Mortensen thinks the same:Due to the direct link between ESO and Chile and the Danish facilities at La Silla, Chile and Denmark have had a strong collaboration throughout the years. But the collaboration goes beyond that; I have for example worked with Chilean astronomers and since my PhD thesis I have constantly been working both with students and senior staff. Chile and Denmark have had long collaborations on several topics of astrophysics including the studies of gamma-ray bursts, star formation and variable stars. Of course, one of the disadvantages is the large distance between Chile and Denmark. However, due to long-term collaborations between the observation runs in Chile, this is partly alleviated”, Andersen explains.

And Chavarría goes beyond that: “Now that the relationships between Chile and European astronomers are established, we want to grow this collaboration. We want to take what we have learnt and take it to the next level”.

“We want to establish Astronomy and collaboration as a way to reinforce Chile as a venue to educate scientists not only in Astronomy but also in engineering, data science and technology”, affirms. Chavarría adds that this project will be held in the new Chilean Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation Ministry that will start to function in January 2020.

This goal matches with Morten Andersen experience as a astronomer. His studies for bachelor and masters were in Copenhagen and during his last year of studies he attended a conference in Potsdam Germany on binary stars. “Speaking with one of the organizers I realized they had a position open for a PhD student at just about the time I would finish my master thesis. I applied for the position which I was fortunate enough to get and I did my PhD studies in Potsdam, Germany. As a side-note, my supervisor has since moved to Chile as well”.

“I had looked at job opportunities before in Chile and in 2015 there appeared to be a good match between my skills and what Gemini needed and I decided to apply. Happily I got the job”, he tells.

Currently, Morten Andersen´s research is focussed on the formation of stars and how they obtain their mass. “Through observing the star formation process in different environments I try to understand how stars obtain the mass they have (most stars in the Universe appears to have a mass half of that of the sun) and how the typical mass depends on the star formation environments. I pursue this through observations, predominantly from Gemini using our high spatial resolution and good infrared capabilities but also using other facilities for example the Hubble Space Telescope and ALMA”, explains.

For Chavarría, the collaboration between Chilean and European astronomers is established, so his next aim is to use astronomy as tool to enhance and support other disciplines and types of collaborations. “Whenever science have has developed a tool for research, this technology have been used also for social propose. So, In Conicyt, we want to extend our frame of benefits of what we as a country, get from developing astronomy”.

So, even though Chile and Denmark are 12.724 kilometres apart, the great research and scientific collaboration in astronomy between both countries can support the development and economic growth of Chile on the long term.

Marta Apablaza is a freelance science journalist based in Santiago, Chile