A Large Window to the Unknown

Night after night, the European Southern Observatory’s huge telescopes in Chile peer deeply into the unknown expanses of the universe. Fernando Comerón, the ESO’s on-site chief-of-staff, recently talked to us about possible ways in which art and science can engage in mutual inspiration at these locations and what this postulated ninth planet in our solar system is all about.

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The sun is setting behind the hills of La Silla, Chile, and a starry night sky is about to emerge. So it’s time for another workday to begin for the staff of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) here, far from the slightest trace of civilization. From this point on, all the facility’s measuring instruments and lenses are aimed at the deep, dark depths of the cosmos. This is the second time that the ESO is hosting a residency under the auspices of the Art & Science Initiative that enables artists to spend several weeks here amidst the world of science and to draw inspiration from it. The name of the individual who’ll now succeed Marìa Ignacia Edwards and be the second artist-in-residence—first in Chile and then at the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz—will be announced in mid-March 2016 at ars.electronica.art/artandscience.

Fernando Comerón, an astrophysicist and the ESO’s key man in Chile who’s also a member of the European Digital Art and Science Network’s jury, recently talked to us about not only our solar system’s new planet, the discoveries being made by the organization’s giant eyes-on-the-sky, and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) being planned for 2024, but also about the similarities and differences between artists and scientists.

Fernando Comerón

Fernando Comerón studying the heavens in Deep Space 8K of Ars Electronica Center. Credit: Martin Hieslmair

A month ago, we all read about calculation-based evidence of a massive ninth planet in our solar system. Why is it so difficult to prove the existence of all planets in our solar system?

Fernando Comeròn: I wouldn’t say that there is hard evidence or there is something disputed at the moment. The evidence is very difficult to find because it is indirect evidence and these planets are far away – far away from us and from the sun, and, if not, we would have found them long ago. These planets receive much less light than our planet receives. According to the modern definition of what a planet is, Neptune is considered to be the last planet in our solar system. A planet orbiting ten times the distance of Neptune would receive one hundredth of the sunlight, several hundred times less that we receive on Earth. So that means that when we are exploring the outer solar system, the only tool that we have is actually the gravitational effect.

The evidence for the ninth planet is based on the alignment of the orbits of the most distant objects that we know of in the solar system right now. Only statistical evidence is hard evidence. The orbits of the objects that we know of that far away tend to align as if their orbits were, so to speak, shuffled by more massive objects. They have a gravitational influence upon their orbits in that region of the solar system. This is where the hints are. Although it is something still to be considered with caution, it’s an important discovery because that directs the research to a certain orientation. But it still will take time to find true evidence, and hopefully, one day, obtain an image of this planet.

Planet Nine

Credit: Tomruen, nagualdesign; background taken from File:ESO – Milky Way.jpg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

What are the recent discoveries made by ESO telescopes?

Fernando Comeròn: It is difficult to single out one because ESO and particular the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and its assembled telescopes at Paranal are doing research every night. They are executing a large number of programs every night and the outcome of that – compared to the outcomes of other observatories – is that about two scientific papers are produced for each observing night. So if you ask astronomers what the most important discoveries are, the answer will depend on the field of research of each astronomer. And from this perspective, it would be a subjective answer. But an advantage of the VLT and the work of the astronomers for the European and worldwide community – the Europeans are the majority of our users but not the only ones – is that they do research virtually in every field: From the solar system to the most distant universe.

I refer to something that is outside of my field but I believe that with the VLT we are learning through observations about the assembly of the first structures in the universe. We learn a lot about galaxies in their early stages and how the mass in the universe is put together to form large structures. We learn about how the formation of stars takes place. This history of early assembly of the universe is among the main contributions that the VLT is making nowadays. It’s about to enable us to understand especially the early history of the universe and why the local universe, the nearby galaxies and the universe that we can see and consider as our neighbourhood, look the way they do.

In retrospect, some discoveries were challenging. We are talking about a time when small chunks of protogalaxies or pieces of galaxies were assembled together into galaxies that look more or less like the Milky Way. And then concurrence and evolution of time gave rise to the elliptical galaxies. But what we are discovering in our universe now is that these elliptical galaxies were there much earlier than models predicted. It tells us that models are powerful but they don’t tell the full story and there is nothing like having large telescopes to verify and to get a closer view of the truth.


This is how the E-ELT will look like in the year 2024. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The first deployment of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is currently scheduled for 2024. One of the main reasons for building it is to look deeper into space, isn’t it?

Fernando Comeròn: I think this is accurate and at the same time it may sound like a very imprecise description. Of course, when you are embarking on a project like the E-ELT, tax payers and interested persons are asking legitimately: Why are we doing this? For what purpose? What are you going to discover with it? Scientists have put together a compelling justification based on current facts as to why we need such a telescope to go beyond the observational knowledge of the universe that we have nowadays. If history is our guide, the main thing that the E-ELT will do is to open space to main discoveries that we can hardly predict now. Some of the things the E-ELT will do we currently know because this is what we would like to do now with a more powerful telescope.

“But astronomy is going to be progressing over the next ten years until the E-ELT is first put into use. In the meantime, new questions will arise and those will be driving the science of the E-ELT. I think this is the prediction to make. I cannot say which questions will face us in 2024 – because if I knew them, I would find an answer now.” Fernando Comerón

But if one goes back in history to the early or mid-1980s when the VLT was being designed and went into construction: the questions that astronomers were asking at that time when these large telescopes didn’t exist and at the first light of the VLT ended up very differently. The most exciting thing about these large projects is that they are a large window to the unknown. When you build a new telescope you will have surprises. And we want to see these surprises.


Fernando Comerón (left) and María Ignacia Edwards (right) during their introduction visit to ALMA. Credit: Claudia Schnugg

María Ignacia Edwards was the first artist to be granted the privilege of a stay at one of the ESO’s facilities in Chile. She really was enthusiastic about getting inspired by ESO – but, conversely, how did she inspire you and your team of scientists?

Fernando Comeròn: You have to take into account the context in which the work of the astronomers happens – there are not only astronomers at the observatory. The astronomic community also consists of technicians, engineers, telescope operators, and the people who make the observatory work. It is not only the astronomers; they are just users of the end product. These people work in isolated conditions. They spend practically one week at the observatory, and then they go back to their family life, to their city or their home. The observatory becomes some kind of virtual world, an isolated reality that has its own content and its own code of communication.

It is very refreshing for us to have these new perspectives from somebody who comes from a world that has nothing to do with the world of the visiting astronomers. Artists are having a fresh look to the observatory as a place not of high-tech, not of scientific discovery and not of technical jargon but as an inspiring place for something that is very different from the scope of the visiting astronomers.

The interactions especially with Maria – but I believe that this will happen in one way or another with the following artists – established a dialogue, or as Maria entitled her artistic work: it brings “encounters” which lead to this dialogue. We tried to establish a common understanding starting from our different languages and we tried to see the place and what we do through the eyes of the others. And this experience when you realize that what the observatory is doing is important for scientists, obviously, but it is also important for other people. This broader perspective of our work and these ways in which the observations can contribute to also answering other non-scientific questions is perhaps the most enriching contribution that the observatories bring to the scientists.

If you look at the submissions for the residency this year, what are the shared interests of artists seeking to do a residency at ESO in Chile?

Fernando Comeròn: This cooperation with Ars Electronica is a learning experience for me in many ways. One I would particularly like to highlight in response to your question is the way that a scientific project is set up in comparison to an artistic project. Let’s compare the expectation of the artists and scientists who want to go to ESO and the way they get access to the site.

For the scientists – I’ve been a user of the telescopes for the last 20 years and I’ve written and seen many different proposals and projects – there are concrete ideas. I want to go to the telescopes for this project, I want to do this in that way, I’m going to use the data in this case and I want to answer specific questions. And I expect the answers to be this way. If the answers are not those ones, the time I spent at the telescopes is scientifically valuable anyway. Because if I get an unexpected answer this is going to drive the research in this direction or in that direction. I will set up the questions that will also trigger new proposals and new follow-ups. You have to be very concrete end-to-end about how do you start and why you want to go to there – that is common to the artist and the scientist. But as a scientist you also have to be very concrete about what you expect to find. This is what makes the proposal sound convincing. You cannot go there as a scientist with an open mind saying: Give me telescope time and I will figure out what to do with it.

For the artist the richness and the value of the project is the opposite. I find this contrast very interesting. The artist goes there open-minded. Many of the proposals of the Art and Science open call have highlighted that explicitly: Well, I cannot tell you what the final outcome is going to be because I expect that it will take shape at the observatories. I think the keyword for the artist going there is inspiration, to find inspiration, to get inspired by the place. And the more open you are to what you will do at the place – it’s perhaps the first time you are going there – the more open-minded you are about how the different inputs are coming from the place, the landscapes, the technology, the night sky and the scientific astronomical observations. All this is going to feed into the inspiration for this project. To me, this is one of the most valuable and most exciting aspects: How do we evaluate these submissions and how do we evaluate the potential they have to bring forth an outcome that reflects the crossovers between art and science that these calls are for. It’s also interesting to consider it from the point of view that when we implement these projects, we see both art and science in the making. This is a learning experience and this is something we want to expose in these calls: The artists get access to the way science is done and the scientists get to see how the artist shapes the project into something we will see later.

ESO 2016 Jury

The Art and Science jury meeting for the ESO residency 2016 took place at the Ars Electronica Center. Credit: Martin Hieslmair

Fernando Comeròn

Fernando Comerón obtained his PhD in physics at the University of Barcelona in 1992. He has carryied out research in astrophysics at the University of Barcelona (Spain), the Observatory of Paris Meudon (France), the University of Arizona (USA) and, since 1995, at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the leading European international organization for observational astronomy. In 2013 he was appointed as head of the ESO Representation in Chile, the country where the ESO observatories are located. Prior to this, he had been involved in observatory operations for over 15 years and was head of the ESO Data Management and Operations Division located in Garching near Munich, Germany, before moving to Chile. His research interests are in star formation, galactic structure, and young stellar objects at both high and low masses, fields in which he has published over 80 papers in international refereed journals.