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The age of grand observations

International partnerships and investments of nearly R$200 million over the next 10 years should boost astrophysics in São Paulo

AstrophysicsPublished in may 2015

The São Paulo astrophysics community, which represents one-third of Brazilian researchers and one-half of Brazilian scientific production in the area, is preparing to make a qualitative leap between now and the middle of the next decade. Recent agreements with four large international groups will ensure that researchers from São Paulo will be part of the cutting-edge global work. Their ambition is to answer some of the most fundamental questions that lead astronomers to scan the skies with their telescopes, satellites and probes, such as the enigma of extraterrestrial life and the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which are two principal constituents of the Universe and about which we know almost nothing. By 2024, FAPESP will have spent almost R$200 million on these projects in addition to investments on other astrophysics initiatives.

In the field of visible-light and infrared radiation observations, one of the initiatives that can expand the human view of the cosmos is the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which measures 24.5 meters (m) and will be the largest land telescope when it is inaugurated, probably in 2021. Through a $40 million agreement between the Foundation and the international consortium responsible for managing the construction of the super telescope, astrophysicists from universities and institutions in São Paulo will be entitled to 4% of GMT observation time. “With this agreement, we are ensuring the future of Brazilian astrophysics and the research that we will be carrying out in 2030,” says astrophysicist João Steiner of the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of São Paulo (IAG-USP), who initiated and coordinated the project that paved the way for the entry into the GMT.

Radio astronomy, a specialty that is not yet advanced in Brazil, is expected to gain impetus with the Large Latin-American Millimeter Array (LLAMA), a joint initiative of São Paulo and Argentine researchers. The acronym is a humorous reference to a member of the typical fauna of the Andes, where the 12-m diameter antenna will be installed in the first half of 2016 at an altitude of 4,800 m. “Our Itapetinga radio telescope in Atibaia is outdated and LLAMA will be important for radio astronomers because it is much more sensitive,” says Jacques Lépine of IAG-USP, who is the project coordinator. The antenna can work alone or together with the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the largest radio astronomy project in the world.

The other two international initiatives cover different areas of research in astrophysics. The Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) involves a consortium of 29 countries and will include two arrays with more than 100 telescopes of three different sizes. It will be the largest ground-based observatory to study high-energy gamma rays. “The projects have a broad scientific scope and are complementary,” says Elisabete de Gouveia Dal Pino of IAG-USP, one of the coordinators of the Brazilian contribution to the CTA. “For the first time in history, we will be able to make combined observations, collecting data from the entire electromagnetic spectrum: from low-frequency radio waves through the visible spectrum up to gamma rays at the high end of the spectrum.”

The Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey (J-PAS) is a Spanish and Brazilian bi-national project whose objective is to produce a three-dimensional map of the distribution of matter throughout the Universe over the next five years. Brazil is funding and coordinating the construction of the second largest astronomical camera in the world, JPCam, with a resolution of 1.2 billion pixels and 59 different filters, to be installed in one of the initiative’s telescopes.

“There is a pent-up demand among Brazilian astrophysicists for time on international telescopes,” says Bruno Vaz Castilho, director of the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA). The federal institution manages the time that Brazilian researchers are allotted on the Gemini and SOAR telescopes and on the CFHT (Canada France Hawaii Telescope). In late 2010, Brazil signed a formal agreement to become a member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a consortium of 15 European countries that manages three astronomical observation sites in Chile. The agreement, which guarantees access to ESO facilities, awaits approval by the Brazilian Congress.