History of FAPESP V

Competition in the sky

The continuous investments made by FAPESP have helped astronomers and astrophysicists produce world class science


If in the 1960’s FAPESP already played an important role in providing scholarships and importing equipment for astronomy and astrophysics research, in the recent past the Foundation has started to invest heavily in infrastructure capable of lending international competitiveness to the Brazilian scientific community in this field of knowledge. This did not consist merely of joining international consortiums that provide astronomers with user time in powerful facilities such as Soar, the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope, designed to obtain excellent quality images of the sky in the visible range of light at the start of infrared, and the Pierre Auger Observatory, designed to capture high energy cosmic rays, both in the Andes mountain range. FAPESP also encouraged the creation of domestic competence in the manufacturing of sophisticated tools installed in the observatories. “Creating cutting-edge instrumentation programs, such as those we have been able to accomplish, is a fundamental step for anyone aspiring to produce top notch science,” states the astrophysicist João Steiner, a professor at IAG, the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Science of the University of São Paulo (USP), who sat on the Soar board for 12 years and has taken part in the telescope project since its creation, in the early 1990s.

During FAPESP’s first decade of activity (1962 to 1971), astronomy absorbed more than 1% of the Foundation’s resources. The investments, as stated in the book Pesquisa e desenvolvimento [Research and development], which the Foundation released in the early 1970’s, focused mainly on grants, trips to congresses, visits from foreign professors and the purchase of equipment. The research studies conducted at the USP Astronomic Observatory, which at that time were in the Estado park of the São Paulo state capital, got funding from 1962 to 1967. FAPESP’s chief contribution was funding the installation and maintenance of the Danjon astrolabe, an instrument that allows one to record with great precision the moment when a celestial body goes past a set height in the sky, along with the personnel training to use it.

Craam, the Center of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, created in 1960, bears witness to the Foundation’s investments in astronomy from the earliest days of this institution. The financing was of fundamental importance for the group to operate in its early years. “We sought out the geneticist Warwick Kerr, who was the FAPESP scientific director at the time. He gave us guidance on how to present the project that enabled the purchase of a series of pieces of basic equipment, all of them second hand, but of fine quality, such as signal generating oscilloscopes built by the United States during the Second World War,” recalls the Brazilian physicist Pierre Kaufmann, a researcher at Craam to this day. According to him, FAPESP’s guidance was also fundamental for the group, which also included many amateur astronomers and students from the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature at Mackenzie University, to obtain resources from other sources, such as the American Office of Science for Latin America. During its first decade, the group had more than 50 scientific articles published in specialized journals. Mackenzie University’s bet on astronomy was supported by FAPESP at several stages, such as when a radio-observatory was consolidated in Ibirapuera park in 1962, then  its transfer to Campo de Jordão in 1964 and then its move to an area in the Itapetininga neighborhood, near the town of Atibaia in the late 1960’s. There, in 1971, a radiotelescope for millimetric waves with 13.4 meters in diameter was set up. It was here that the group achieved a vast production in radioastronomy. The Atibaia antenna was the first of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. Today, it is not used much. “It’s no longer competitive as it was in the past,” says Kaufmann.

MIGUEL BOYAYANOne of the cosmic ray photodetectors, in an image produced in 2003MIGUEL BOYAYAN

The physicist’s team continued to produce world class science at the SST, the Solar Submillimeter-wave Telescope, set up in the late 1990’s at the astronomy complex of El Leoncito, at an altitude of 2.6 thousand meters in the Argentine Andes. It was here that in 2004, Kaufmann and his Argentine colleagues identified a new type of solar flare, which produced the so-called T-rays. Captured by the SST’s 1.5 meter antenna, these exceeded the limit of 100 gigahertz (GHz), believed to be, up until then, the maximum energy frequency in the radio band observed in solar flares. Kaufmann’s group detected the radiation in two frequencies: 212 and 405 GHz or 0.2 and 0.4 terahertz, the measurement unit adopted, which explains the name of this radiation and places it in the spectrum between radio waves and visible light. “The emission of this form of radiation is a stronger phenomenon than the emission of other energy bands released by solar flares,” says Kaufmann, coordinator of the study that describes the identification of solar flare T rays, in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Inaugurated in 1999, the SST antenna cost US$1.26 million, financed by FAPESP, and is still active.

“Up until the 1980’s, FAPESP was fundamental for the creation of a critical mass that was to make use of the investment in infrastructure as from the 1990s,” says João Steiner, from IAG. The Foundation helped to acquire equipment for LNA, the National Laboratory of Astrophysics, in Itajubá (Minas Gerais state). This equipment was used by groups of researchers from São Paulo and other states. Inaugurated in 1981, the 1.6 meter LNA telescope at the Pico dos Dias Observatory in the town of Brazópolis, Minas Gerais, was the first such laboratory actually established in Brazil. “However, LNA has also lost its competitiveness, hence the importance of Brazilian participation in the Gemini observatory, in 1993, and in Soar, in 1998,” says Steiner, referring to two telescopes used by Brazilian astronomers in the Chilean Andes. Incidentally, this investment helped to shape the scientific community in astronomy. A survey conducted by Steiner showed that 61% of the scientific leaders in astronomy, i.e., those who have CNPq productivity fellowships of levels 1 and 2, work in the optical and infrared area, supported by LNA, Soar and Gemini. Another 18% work on theoretical astronomy, while 11% focus on radioastronomy; and 3% are spread over other areas.