It was during a game of tennis, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in January 2000, that Luis Herrera Arias accepted the responsibility of coordinating the construction of the dome of the telescope named Soar – a hemisphere of 14 meters in height that slides with finesse upon a 20-meter diameter ring. Two years later, coordinator Herrera was on the top of a mountain in the Chilean Andes, the Cerro Pachón, at an altitude of 2,700 meters leading fifteen men who were mounting the parts manufactured in Brazil, all of them wearing red clothing and hooded, in an attempt to escape from the cold of minus 8o Celsius.
“It was horrible”, comments the 66-year-old engineer, today still the tennis partner of César Ghizoni, the director of the company that hired him, Equatorial, from the town of São José dos Campos. “One couldn’t stay more than half an hour on the stairs, some twelve meters above the ground.” And then there was the snow, lot’s of snow: though Chilean born, engineer Herrera has never seen such snow. Twice, in the middle of a blizzard, he had to abandon the observatory with his team, under the risk of remaining isolated at the top of a mountain and being there for who knows how long. “Outside” he remembers “nobody could see a thing.” The white blizzard intensified and hours later it had left a one and a half meter covering of snow on the ground.
Like a house, which after being built silences the voices of those who constructed it, scientific works tend to leave behind those who worked in the front line and created the pathways to be followed by those who come later. This was the situation with the Soar – the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research –, opened under a blue sky and agreeable weather on the 17th of April. The process of evaluation through which this project passed has created a model for the funding large scale enterprises, now being followed in two similar projects: the Pierre Auger Cosmic Rays Observatory under construction in Argentina, in which Brazil is participating alongside other sixteen countries, and the Mario Schenberg Gravitational Wave Detector, an entirely national project, with operation start scheduled for next year.
“With the Soar FAPESP has gained a new way of looking at projects, especially international projects, that involve the building of large pieces of equipment”, says José Fernando Perez, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, and one of the institutions that funded the observatory in Chile, with close to US$ 3.2 million, together with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), which invested US$ 10 million. Two strategies adopted for the very first time during this enterprise – as well as, evidently, the scientific relevance – have gone on to guide the evaluation of similar proposals: the involvement of researchers at all stages of the work, from the projection to the operation of the equipment, and the building of the instruments themselves, whenever possible, by national industry.
“Projects of this scope will develop competence within the country on precision instrumentation”, Perez underlines. “We prefer to assume more responsibility with the instrumentation than in other activities in which we could learn less.” It was for this reason that FAPESP released close to US$ 1 million for an independent project, although complementary to the Soar: the construction of a highly refined instrument – a spectrograph –, which breaks down the light from the stars and indicates when they were created and of what they are made.
The major lesson from this situation is possibly the following: learn to change the rules of the game when necessary. At the beginning, the Soar Project was an idea pampered to by North American Institutions – the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) and four universities. João Steiner, an astrophysicist at the University of São Paulo (USP), discovered an opening for Brazil in 1993 when he participated at a meeting in the United States as the country’s representative on the Gemini project, a group of two telescopes with 8 meter diameter mirrors, one in Hawaii and the other in Chile.
He then got to know that the NOAO team, in parallel with the Gemini team, had initiated the projection of a lesser telescope, cheaper and more versatile, with a 4-meter diameter mirror. Only that they had had to freeze the plans because two of the partners quit, Columbia University and the University of Colorado. It was the opportunity that, for some time, Brazil had been waiting for.
At that moment, ten years had passed since Brazilian astrophysicists had called peoples’ attention with respect to the strategic importance for the country of a telescope with a 4-meter diameter mirror: it would be a way of supplying the future gaps made by the 1.6 meter telescope of the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA), inaugurated in 1981 in the municipality of Brasópolis, in the state of Minas Gerais. Without more powerful equipment, astrophysics, one of the most productive areas of national science, ran the risk of falling behind on the international scenario.
At that time Brazil had become one of the seven countries of the Gemini project, but with the right to only 2.5% of the telescope time, the equivalent of fourteen nights per year. Something of medium size was missing, if possible with a more generous time allocation that would assist the close to two hundred research groups in the country to select the celestial objects to be studies highly delayed through the Gemini. Steiner was, therefore, well received when presenting the prospect of a partnership with the North American Institutions that remained in the project – the NOAO, the University of North Carolina (UNC) and the Michigan State University (MSU).
Mobilized as a possible source of funding, FAPESP, as normal, consulted Brazilian specialists – the external or ad hoc assessors, who remain anonymous so that they can evaluate proposals independently. An alert with respect to the small Brazilian participation in the definition of the telescope project was passed on to them, which followed the design of the North Americans. But, when looking at the complexity of the project, which imposed the need for more intense dialogue with the researchers involved, the traditional formula of evaluation of requests for funding was no longer adequate – and the Foundation then adopted open assessment, which afterwards would be used by others, such as in the analysis of the projects linked to genome research.
Besides the Brazilian specialists, such as Herch Moysés Nussenzveig a physicist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), of renowned competence, and Cylon Gonçalves da Silva who had coordinated the building of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), the Foundation invited two experienced European astrophysicists: the Briton Roger Davies, from Durham University and the United Kingdom’s representative on the Gemini project, and the Italian Massimo Tharenghi, the project manager of the Very Large Telescope (VLT), one of the four telescopes with an 8 meter mirror of the Southern European Observatory (ESO), also located in the Chilean Andes with a budget of U$ 700 million – that of the Soar project was US$ 28 million.
On Wednesday the 13th of December 1995, a two-day meeting sponsored by FAPESP took place and it would change the course of the Soar Project. The debates made evident the importance of a telescope of this magnitude for Brazilian astrophysics to continue their work into the distant future and to maintain the rhythm of research about the origin and composition of stars, the evolution of the galaxies and the distribution of matter in the universe. On the Friday, Davies and Tarenghi got together and made out a seven-page document with an analysis of the project’s general lines and some recommendations.
The most strategic of them were: the Brazilian scientific community must have an active and more critical voice, instead of limiting itself to the role of financier and equipment user, as had happened with the Gemini project. “The assessors suggested that Brazil should look at the project only as a rough outline, although it had been presented as more or less conclusive, and that they should explore other alternatives that would clearly attend to the interests of the Brazilian research groups”, recalls Luiz Nunes, the current Pro-Rector of Research at USP who was one of the speakers at this meeting, then as an advisor to FAPESP’s Scientific Director. “It was like choosing between buying a car and building one.”
In the assessors’ evaluation, Brazil should also clearly define the scientific objectives to be pursued with the Soar Project. The research groups were consulted and, a year and a half later, it was clear how the telescope that the country truly needed should be. As this was not exactly what the Americans had imagined. Proposals to adjust the original project began, which ended up making changes in some essential points. The Brazilians preferred the image detailing – or resolution – to be greater, even allowing for a smaller observed area. The partners gave in: the change also attended to their own interests.
“By having opted for a smaller area with greater resolution, we gained a competitive edge”, comments Steiner. “Today we have only one rival, Hubble.” In the end the Brazilians ended up signing up for the optical projects – the work of Gilberto Moretto, today a NASA consultant – and the electrical fittings – with Oliver Wiecha, who today is looking after a similar telescope under construction in the United States. ” FAPESP only approved the funding after the project was redesigned in such a manner as to clearly respond to the scientific interests of the Brazilian astronomy community, which had been announced with prior notice”, comments Perez.
The Soar Project lived through peculiar financial engineering. In an unprecedented formation, the federal government and the research support foundations of the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul came together to cover the US$ 14 million that Brazil would have spend throughout the construction of the telescope – afterwards, this participation became US$ 12 million in capital and US$ 2 million over twenty years, covering part of the operational costs, with the advantage that the country gained experience in managing a project of this type.
A cooperation agreement signed in November of 1998 established that the CNPq would come in with US$ 2 million, the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) with US$ 1.7 million, FAPESP with US$ 3.1 million and the State Research Foundations of Minas (Fapemig), Rio (Faperj) and Rio Grande do Sul (Fapergs) with US$ 860,000 each. But this equation would change considerably: the financial crisis that the country passed through during 1999, with the abrupt rise of the US dollar, added to the political instability generated by the state elections of the previous year, made the participation of the Foundations from Minas, Rio, and Rio Grande do Sul impractical.
In another unprecedented occurrence, FAPESP took over a debt of the CNPq with the São Paulo researchers to the value of US$ 3.2 million, corresponding to the participation of the state of São Paulo in the Soar Project. Later, the CNPq sent directly to the project the Foundation’s part and completed the Brazilian quota, covering the participation of the other Foundations.Brazil, who entered quietly, now has the right to 34% of the time use, the equivalent of 127 nights per year, of top of the line equipment. According to Steiner, among the other eight telescopes with 4 meter mirrors in operation throughout the world, there is no other as modern – with a primary mirror so fine, of only 10 centimeters in width, maintained fixed by 120 support points, and with a mechanism for image correction, the tip-tilt, which undoes light deformations of wavelength of up to 50 hertz – five times above the maximum of the Gemini tip-tilt.
This project expanded national competence in the construction of precision instruments. In fact, the prototype of the spectrograph, already in use together with the telescope of Minas Gerais exhibits an innovation: the optical fibers that link into the 553 micro-lenses have a diameter of 50 micrometers (1 micrometer corresponds to one thousandth of a millimeter), half of what is normal. The final version is being mounted, in conjunction with the company Leg Tecnologia, from São José dos Campos, and should be sent to Chile next year.
Jacques Lépine, the Director of the Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences Institute (IAG) of USP and the project’s coordinator, keeps one of the main parts under extreme care: a block of glass no larger than a bar of chocolate with 1,300 lenses, to which will be fixed the optical fibers that are going to conduct the light to be analyzed into the spectrograph. As the loss of light that can be held in the palm of a hand cost around US$ 50,000. “We want to be at the most competitive level that exists”, comments Lépine.
For the researchers who are working on the Soar Project, and on similar projects, dealing with companies involves a manner of refining the art of dialog. Odylio Aguiar, a researcher at the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), checked out four foundries before arriving at Italbronze, in Guarulhos, in Greater São Paulo, the only one prepared to build the basic part for the Mario Schenberg Detector, whose purpose is to register gravitational waves, forecast in the Theory of Relativity, but as yet undetected by the ten other similar pieces of equipment already operational in the world.
At the head of the project, which is able to count upon close to US$ 1 million from FAPESP, Aguiar had thought about a massive solid bronze sphere of 3 meters in diameter. After seeing the cost and the production difficulties, he decided for one of 65 centimeters in diameter, even at that weighing 1.15 tons. “It was an unprecedented piece of work”, recalls Jaime Jimenez, Italbronze’s general manager. The company, which had never made anything solid of these dimensions nor with this type of bronze, without tin, founded a further two similar spheres for a Dutch team that is going to work with the Brazilians.
Carlos Escobar, a physicist at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), has had more intense contact with companies since 2000 when he took over the coordination of the Brazilian team for a project that emphasizes the development of instrumentation: the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, in which FAPESP is participating with R$ 1.6 million and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) with a further R$ 600,000. His experience indicates that companies verify quality control in projects of this scope.
This is not the only gain. “After getting to know the researchers, the engineering team matured, lost their fear of making an error and began to look for solutions that were more creative”, says César Ghizoni, a Director at Equatorial, which is also involved in the Pierre Auger project. By the way, he was the won who won that game of tennis against Luis Herrera.Republish