The Councils of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), at their respective meetings on December 3 and 5, 2001, have endorsed the terms for UK membership of ESO, as recently agreed by their Negotiating Teams.

All members of the Councils – the governing bodies of the two organisations – welcomed the positive spirit in which the extensive negotiations had been conducted and expressed great satisfaction at the successful outcome of a complex process. The formal procedure of accession will now commence in the UK and is expected to be achieved in good time to allow accession from July 2002.

The European Southern Observatory is the main European organisation for astronomy and the United Kingdom will become its tenth member state. ESO operates two major observatories in the Chilean Atacama desert where the conditions for astronomical observations are second-to-none on earth and it has recently put into operation the world`s foremost optical/infrared telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal.

With UK membership, British astronomers will join their European colleagues in preparing new projects now being planned on a global scale. They will also be able to pursue their research on some of the most powerful astronomical instruments available. The ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, is “delighted that we have come this far after the lengthy negotiations needed to prepare properly the admission of another major European country to our organisation. When ESO was created nearly 40 years ago, the UK was planning for its own facilities in the southern hemisphere, in collaboration with Australia, and decided not to join. However, the impressive scientific and technological advances since then and ESOs emergence as a prime player on the European research scene have convinced our UK colleagues of the great advantages of presenting a united European face in astronomy through ESO”.

The President of the ESO Council, Dr. Arno Freytag, shares this opinion fully. “This is a most important step in the continuing process of European integration. The entry of the UK will of course be very useful to the scientists in that country, but I have no doubt that the benefits will be mutual. With its world-level astronomical and engineering expertise and with one of the most active research communities in Europe, the UK will bring significant intellectual, technical and financial resources to strengthen ESO. I have no doubt that the impressive research that is now being carried out by numerous astronomers with the ESO facilities has been our best advertisement and I am sure that this has had an important effect on the very welcome decision by the UK to join ESO.”

The UK will pay the usual annual contribution to ESO from the date of its entry. It has also been decided that as an important part of the special contribution to be made on entry, the UK will deliver the VISTA infrared survey telescope to ESO as an in-kind contribution. This wide-field telescope facility is now being constructed in the UK for a consortium of universities and it was decided already last year to place it at Paranal, cf. ESO PR 03/00. It will now become a fully integrated part of the ESO Paranal Observatory providing important survey observations in support of the VLT.

Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of PPARC, is “delighted that the negotiations with ESO and subsequent Council meetings have passed this critical decision point. We now expect a straightforward parliamentary process to ratify the intergovernmental treaty. This decision will allow UK astronomers to have access to the world-class VLT telescopes at Paranal. Just as importantly UK Astronomy will have a sound basis for the future ALMA and OWL projects in a European context. This is a major increase in investment in, and capability for, UK Astronomy.”

Both ESO and PPARC issue co-ordinated Press Releases about the UK accession today.

ESO`s current member state are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.