Interning at ESO!

Blog post

During summer 2019, I was fortunate enough to undertake a summer project at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Munich. I was one of seven students selected for the internship: I represented Ireland; myself and one other student represented the UK; while the other students were from Poland, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Australia. Each of these countries (except Australia, which is a strategic partner) is a member state of ESO – there are 16 member states in total!

ESO is an intergovernmental science and technology organisation, specialising in astronomy. They design, construct and operate some of the world’s largest, most cutting-edge telescopes: VLT, ALMA, and the upcoming ELT to name but a few. ELT or ‘Extremely Large Telescope’ is currently under construction on Cerro Amazones in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Its completion is globally anticipated: it will host a primary reflecting mirror with a diameter of more than 39m! This will make it the largest optical telescope in the world – pretty exciting stuff if you ask me. The ESO headquarters in Garching is a centre for both astrophysical and engineering research. One of the most exciting parts of my time at ESO was the visit to the ELT M1 test stand, where we got to see where the electronics behind the 800 hexagonal mirror segments that will make up the primary mirror are tested!

ELT Test Stand

The summer research programme itself was fantastically structured. We had a series of lectures on topics such as the solar system, gamma-ray astronomy, and the ESO telescopes. These were delivered by the amazing research fellows and staff. We were fully integrated into day-to-day life at ESO – we attended daily Science Coffee as well as weekly lunchtime talks and journal club! The Garching headquarters is also home to a beautiful, modern planetarium, and we were treated to a planetarium show by the wonderful Dr Chris Harrison – an experience I won’t forget any time soon.

Somehow throughout all these activities, we managed to find the time to complete an individual research project! We were each supervised by a few of the research fellows, who were invaluable sources of help and incredibly generous with their time. My project was titled ‘Comet evolution: from the Kuiper Belt to a dormant comet in the near-Earth asteroid population’, and it was JUST as exciting as it sounds! I worked closely with my supervisor Dr Rosita Kokotanekova to reduce and analyse recent data of comet 169P/Neat, taken using the Isaac Newton Telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma. The comet was inactive during the observations, which means there was no visible coma or tail, and we were able to deduce particular properties about the comet’s surface. I had an amazing time working on this project, and hope to continue working on this or projects similar to this in the future – it will hopefully help us understand how different types of comets evolve over time, which will almost certainly answer existing questions on how our solar system formed.

I’ve talked an awful lot about my time at ESO, but we also had plenty of free time to explore Munich and the surrounding area! It was my first time in Germany, and 6 weeks wasn’t nearly long enough to do all the things I wanted to do, but I did my best! We had plenty of group trips sightseeing in the gorgeous city of Munich, and we enjoyed swimming and playing beach volleyball around the shores of the Garchinger See. The absolute highlight of the adventure for me though, was a day-long hike through the Bavarian Alps – it was a hard climb, but the views were simply spectacular and well worth it.

Hiking in the Alps

This was the inaugural programme of its kind at ESO for undergraduate students, but myself and the other interns agree it was a resounding success all round, and I can’t encourage you enough to go for it if the opportunity arises for you to apply to take part in the programme in 2020. It’s an experience that has shaped my ideas for my future career, and reinforced my love of astronomy and physics.

Posted by Abbie Donaldson