50 years of reaching new heights in astronomy
The ESO 50th anniversary logo
The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in the world. The anniversary year is an opportunity to look back at ESO’s history, celebrate its scientific and technological achievements and look forward to its next ambitious programmes. ESO is planning several exciting activities during the year.
On 5 October 1962, representatives from five European countries — Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden  — signed the ESO Convention in Paris. Their signatures represented a formal commitment to establish the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, today commonly referred to as the European Southern Observatory.
“ESO’s 50th anniversary comes in the middle of the most exciting period for European and international ground-based astronomy. ESO has come a long way since it was established in 1962. Fifty years later, ESO is now a leader in the astronomical research community as the most productive astronomical observatory in the world,” says Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s Director General.
ESO's first observatory was built on La Silla, a 2400 metre-high mountain, 600 kilometres north of Santiago de Chile. The La Silla Observatory is equipped with several optical telescopes with mirror diameters of up to 3.6 metres. These include the New Technology Telescope, which broke new ground for telescope engineering and design and was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled, active optics main mirror, a technology developed at ESO and now applied to most of the world's large telescopes. The ESO 3.6-metre telescope is now home to the world's foremost exoplanet hunter, HARPS.
The second site established by ESO was the Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope array (VLT). Scientific operations began in 1999 and today the VLT is the flagship facility of European astronomy and with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) the only regularly operated large interferometric telescope in the world. Also on Paranal, the VISTA telescope works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope, while the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) is the largest telescope designed to survey the skies exclusively in visible light.
On the Chajnantor plateau in Northern Chile, together with North American and East Asian partners, ESO is building a revolutionary astronomical telescope — ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the largest astronomical project in existence. ALMA will be a single telescope composed of 66 high-precision antennas that will study the building blocks of stars, planetary systems, galaxies and life itself. ALMA's construction will be completed in 2013, but early scientific observations with a partial array began in 2011 (eso1137).
ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class optical/near-infrared telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope or E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”. With the start of operations planned for early in the next decade, the E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time (eso1150).
Several events and public initiatives are planned for 2012. ESO would like to invite everyone to join the celebrations, either by taking part in events that are already planned or by proactively initiating other activities.
- From 3–7 September 2012, ESO’s Headquarters will host a scientific symposium to cover topics such as exoplanets, the Solar System, star formation and stellar evolution, cosmology and more.
- On the day of the anniversary, 5 October 2012, ESO aims to organise coordinated public events in the 15 Member States. Organised with the help of ESO’s Science Outreach Network and Outreach Partner Organisations, the events will be an excellent way to put the public at national venues directly in touch with ESO's astronomy community and its breathtaking observatory sites in Chile.
- On 11 October 2012, ESO’s Director General, Professor Tim de Zeeuw, and the Council President, Professor Xavier Barcons, will welcome Ministers from the Member States and the host country Chile, the ESO Council, representatives of ESO committees, past ESO Director Generals, renowned astronomers and other people who have played key roles for ESO at a gala anniversary event to take place in Munich.
- During the year an anniversary exhibition will be on display at selected locations in the Member States. Interested venues may apply to host an exhibition via the contacts below.
- A documentary movie will be released on the anniversary day, together with a sumptuously illustrated book. The movie will also be released as episodes in ESO’s popular ESOcast video podcast series. Adriaan Blaauw’s book, ESO’s Early History, will be followed this year by a second history book written by Claus Madsen to complete the 50 years of ESO’s history.
- The first Picture of the Week of every month in 2012 will be a special Then and Now feature, presenting ESO sites as they looked in the past and as they look today.
- For those who have witnessed ESO’s historical voyage from the inside, either as members of staff or simply as visitors to our sites, we have expanded the Your ESO Pictures Flickr Group to include historical images. Please share your photo memories of ESO with us and everyone else by posting these “postcards from the past” to the group (ann12001).
- To mark the anniversary, some commemorative merchandise items have also been released in the ESOshop, also at bulk rates.
- Send anniversary messages to ESO on ESO’s Facebook Page or on Twitter @ESO_Observatory using the hashtag #ESO50years.
“I look forward to the next 50 years of ESO, which will undoubtedly present ground-breaking science beyond the imaginable, thanks to the VLT and the VLTI, ALMA and the E-ELT and future flagship projects. It is thanks to the dedication, passion and professionalism of the ESO staff that ESO is leading ground-based astronomy today. Happy 50th anniversary to everyone!,” wishes Tim de Zeeuw.
 Strictly speaking there were six countries as the United Kingdom also signed the Convention. The UK later withdrew, and only joined ESO in 2002 as its 10th Member State.
The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
ESO’s 50th anniversary web page
Fifty Highlights from Fifty Years
ESO’s 50th anniversary scientific symposium
ESO’s 50th anniversary merchandise in the shop
ESO Flickr group
ESO’s 50th Anniversary Twitter wall
Lars Lindberg Christensen
Head, ESO education and Public Outreach Department