Space Café Podcast

Roberto Tamai - Answers to the biggest questions in reach – ELT's project manager shares insights about the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile

February 27, 2024 Markus Mooslechner, Roberto Tamai Season 1 Episode 101
Roberto Tamai - Answers to the biggest questions in reach – ELT's project manager shares insights about the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile
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Space Café Podcast
Roberto Tamai - Answers to the biggest questions in reach – ELT's project manager shares insights about the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile
Feb 27, 2024 Season 1 Episode 101
Markus Mooslechner, Roberto Tamai

SpaceWatch.Global is pleased to present: The Space Café Podcast #101:  Answers to the biggest questions in reach – ELT project manager Roberto Tamai shares insights about the  Extremely Large Telescope in Chile 

Episode 101 features special guest:  Roberto Tamai

In this captivating episode, Markus takes us on an exploratory journey to one of Earth's most remote and intriguing places, the Atacama Desert, home to the future of astronomical discovery: The European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Roberto Tamai, the project manager of the ELT, shares the human stories, technical marvels, and ambitious goals behind the world's largest optical and near-infrared telescope.

Key Topics Covered:

  • 🔹 ELT's Vision: The drive and ambition behind constructing the world's biggest telescope.
  • 🔹 Challenges of Remote Engineering: Navigating the logistical hurdles of bringing groundbreaking technology to the Atacama Desert.
  • 🔹 Human Side of Astronomy: The life and work dynamics in one of the most isolated places on Earth.
  • 🔹 Aiming for the Stars: The scientific and existential questions the ELT aims to answer.
  • 🔹 Musical Universe: The unique blend of engineering precision and human emotion, underscored by Roberto's choice of music for the telescope's first light.

Memorable Quotes:

  • "I am creating a Spotify list for when we open the telescope with some music inside... it's opening to you, to all the people, the window towards the universe."
  • "Sailing at night, it brings you to another place where you can enjoy the sky... It is another fantastic feeling."

Must-Click Links:

Choice of Music for the Spotify Playlist for the Aspiring Space Traveler:

Send us a Text Message.

You can find us on Spotify and Apple Podcast!

Please visit us at
SpaceWatch.Global, subscribe to our newsletters. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter!

Show Notes Transcript

SpaceWatch.Global is pleased to present: The Space Café Podcast #101:  Answers to the biggest questions in reach – ELT project manager Roberto Tamai shares insights about the  Extremely Large Telescope in Chile 

Episode 101 features special guest:  Roberto Tamai

In this captivating episode, Markus takes us on an exploratory journey to one of Earth's most remote and intriguing places, the Atacama Desert, home to the future of astronomical discovery: The European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Roberto Tamai, the project manager of the ELT, shares the human stories, technical marvels, and ambitious goals behind the world's largest optical and near-infrared telescope.

Key Topics Covered:

  • 🔹 ELT's Vision: The drive and ambition behind constructing the world's biggest telescope.
  • 🔹 Challenges of Remote Engineering: Navigating the logistical hurdles of bringing groundbreaking technology to the Atacama Desert.
  • 🔹 Human Side of Astronomy: The life and work dynamics in one of the most isolated places on Earth.
  • 🔹 Aiming for the Stars: The scientific and existential questions the ELT aims to answer.
  • 🔹 Musical Universe: The unique blend of engineering precision and human emotion, underscored by Roberto's choice of music for the telescope's first light.

Memorable Quotes:

  • "I am creating a Spotify list for when we open the telescope with some music inside... it's opening to you, to all the people, the window towards the universe."
  • "Sailing at night, it brings you to another place where you can enjoy the sky... It is another fantastic feeling."

Must-Click Links:

Choice of Music for the Spotify Playlist for the Aspiring Space Traveler:

Send us a Text Message.

You can find us on Spotify and Apple Podcast!

Please visit us at
SpaceWatch.Global, subscribe to our newsletters. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter!

Roberto Tamai 

[00:00:00] Markus: Hello everyone, this is Space Cafe Podcast, and I'm Markus. Let's kick off today's episode with a curious riddle. Are you ready? So, can you guess the one place on Earth where it's forbidden to drive at night with your lights on? got it? The answer lies, of course, in the heart of the Atacama Desert.

[00:00:47] Home to the European Southern Observatory, ESO. Here the need for pitch dark skies to observe the cosmos trumps even the most basic of our driving instincts. Now let's embark on a journey that takes us from the Familiarity of our daily lives to the extraordinary depths of the universe.

[00:01:12] We're diving into a project where the remarkable meets the mundane. The European Extremely Large Telescope, ELT, located in the surreal landscape of the Atacama Desert. The telescope said to be the world's largest optical and near infrared telescope isn't just a feat of engineering.

[00:01:36] It's a human endeavor filled with stories of resilience, teamwork, and the quest for knowledge. Getting to the Atacama Desert from Western Europe or the United States is a journey that underscores the ELT's remoteness. So, for example, for our European listeners, imagine embarking on a flight that can take upward of 15 hours to get you to South America to the farthest tip to the Atacama Desert.

[00:02:10] And then the real journey begins. This venture to one of the driest and most isolated places on earth highlights the dedication and passion of those involved in this ground breaking project. Joining us today is ELT project manager Roberto Tamay.

[00:02:32] Roberto is here not only to share The technical marvels of the ELT, but also to bring us the human side of this awe inspiring endeavor.

[00:02:42] From the logistical challenges of working in such a remote location, To the daily lives of the scientists and engineers, making it happen, Roberto's insights promise to be as grounding as they are enlightening. So grab your favorite drinks, or hold tight to your steering wheel, or enjoy your run that you're on right now, or your workout.

[00:03:09] Or whatever you're engaged with. Settle in and let's welcome Roberto Tomai to the Space Cafe Podcast, where we explore the vastness of space

[00:03:20] lens of those who dare to venture into the unknown. Let's go! I am in the middle of Europe as well. I am in Munich. So I am, and I am flying over there quite often. Next time it will be in three weeks time. When I go there, I go for one week, maximum two 

[00:03:46] Roberto: weeks. And I'm back. I've lived in Chile 

[00:03:50] for several. 

[00:03:50] Markus: So, So, which place do you prefer Munich or 

[00:03:55] the Atacama

[00:03:56] Desert? 

[00:03:57] Roberto: Oh, that's a difficult question. The reason is that, uh, in, uh, 

[00:04:04] in Chile, I had fantastic time 

[00:04:07] and the people are very similar to the people of where I am from. I am from the South of Italy. So Chileans are very open. They Leave for the human relation. They put the human relation at the very, very high priority in the list of things to do during their life. Munich, I would say that everything is perfectly working.

[00:04:38] Markus: Mm hmm. Mm 

[00:04:39] Roberto: Maybe the job, the work is a little bit higher in the ranking of priorities with respect to the relation with the others, you know, here, my neighbors, I maybe know who they are in Chile. They were coming in and out from the house every single day because the house have the doors open, but my justification for the different behavior is always The 

[00:05:05] weather.

[00:05:06] The weather 

[00:05:06] is, uh. Driving a lot of the human character and that is what made the difference. So in Munich, I am having a 

[00:05:15] Very nice life. It is very well working. Here is probably one 

[00:05:19] of the few places where I have the four seasons. Real, real four seasons. The 

[00:05:24] real winter, the real summer and the spring and fall is fantastic here.

[00:05:30] The colors of the fall are 

[00:05:32] really great. In Antofagasta, 

[00:05:34] where I lived, it was always summer, so it was a bit boring. There was never rain, forget about cold, 

[00:05:43] forget about autumn and the fall and all of that. 

[00:05:47] So it's a different, completely 

[00:05:49] different style of the life. 

[00:05:53] Markus: So how often do you travel back and forth?

[00:05:57] Roberto: Um, this time period, I would say around four, five times. 

[00:06:05] in the past 

[00:06:06] uh, because in the past there was a period where I was, uh, 

[00:06:11] my duty station was in Chile, but I started working for the ELT. It was a little bit more often. I was, 

[00:06:17] uh, flying probably even 10 times per year back and forth. 

[00:06:21] Markus: Wow. 

[00:06:22] Roberto: Now it is around four, five, six times, but pretty soon the period of my trip will be much longer because I hope that pretty soon we will start with the assembling of all the various pieces on the telescope.

[00:06:38] Integrating the various optics on the telescope, and at that time, I'm pretty sure I will spend much more time in Chile rather than here, Munich. Now, here in Munich is a very, logistically speaking, also 

[00:06:53] a good place to 

[00:06:55] go. And visit the various contractors, most of them are European, if not all, because of the industry belonging to the ESO member states.

[00:07:07] And therefore I'm often traveling tomorrow, I'm traveling, no, I'm sorry, on Wednesday, I'm traveling to Paris to visit the polisher. 

[00:07:17] And recently I was in Barcelona to visit some of the sales of the optics. I'm often traveling to Italy, where there is the company that is manufacturing all the pieces for the dome and the main structure of the telescope.

[00:07:33] So, strategically speaking, Munich is one of those places that is pretty soon, pretty close to many. Premises of 

[00:07:41] our 

[00:07:41] contractor. So, so it's good.

[00:07:43] Markus: why don't you tell us a little bit about the ELT itself, what it is, where it comes from. Some say it's the largest ground based telescope that has ever been built and will ever be built, which sounds kind of strange. But before we get into that, tell us a little bit about the extremely large telescope, what it is.

[00:08:05] Thanks.

[00:08:06] Roberto: Yes. And, uh, I agree with you today. I will never say it will be forever the biggest telescope in the world. I would certainly say that for the time being, it is the biggest telescope under construction is the biggest telescope fully funded, a hundred percent funded. It does in the operation book also the money to operate, to maintain it.

[00:08:38] For at least 30 years, that is the, yes. So, All of that is for sure giving a certain position, but I, I don't like that kind of competition Today. I am competing against only the time, the time and, and physics That is my biggest competitor today. But what is the LT? The LT is, uh, ground basis. Telescope, Indivisible, Near Infrared Wavelength.

[00:09:16] The main mirror has a diameter 39. 2 meters. I'm speaking about the mirror because, um, modern telescope, they don't use any longer lenses. The reason is that the size of the lens is limited. by the induced gravity that will break it. Okay. While with the mirror, you can make it as big as you want because you can put the supports on the backside.

[00:09:53] So with the supports on the backside of the mirror, you can make it as big as you want. And then you will incline, you will still incline all day. Actuators that are on the backside of the mirror, and the mirror is acting as the collector of the photons. I like to compare a telescope with a funnel of water that is collecting as many photons as possible, then focus them.

[00:10:21] In a precise location, and that is the main goal of the telescope. Then it is the goal of the scientific instrument to use the collected lights and examine it, either by means of a photograph or making spectroscopy or filtering the collected light in order to see special wavelengths. I mean, that is. The instrument, the scientific instrument scope, that is to analyze the collected light in the multiple, in a variety of way, depending on what is your scientific goal.

[00:11:01] Do you want to make a photo? Do you want to see what is the line of oxygen that the special star has? Or what is the line of the composition? All the gases of a, uh, of a star to verify what it is, these, uh, state and, and so on. So that is 

[00:11:19] the scope of the instrument. 

[00:11:21] Markus: Quick question, if I may, um, people know the James Webb Telescope, of course, so what is the difference between James Webb and the ELT? Of course, James Webb is in, in space, but what else is different? 

[00:11:35] Roberto: main difference is that, uh, first of all, James Webb is mostly focused in the infrared wavelength. The telescope, the ELT, goes from UV and covers a variety of wavelength. First, then, um, they will certainly work a lot in synergy. Okay, so there is no competition in there, please. The, it has already happened in the past.

[00:12:03] A lot of synergy between Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope. Hubble is in the space, Very Large Telescope or many other telescopes are on ground. They have. Usually, the telescope on grounds have a higher resolution because they are bigger, okay? Bigger the telescope, higher the resolution.

[00:12:24] Bigger the telescope, fainter object you can observe, even if, uh, in the unit time. So what I want to say is that the Telescope on Earth can observe stars at night and the night is limited by the time of the night. A telescope in the, in the space, they can observe a star of reconciliation for as long as they want because they're not affected by the sun that is rotating or all many or, or, or other aspect.

[00:12:57] So difference are variety in this sense. Um, one of the, another one is that the James, we. It's not affected by the atmosphere perturbation of the lights, the light coming from a faraway star or constellation or scientific object. When it crosses our atmosphere, it is disturbed. It is disturbed similar to when, similar to when you are, uh, underneath a swimming pool and you are looking at the face of your kid that is looking at you, but on ground, we are continuing.

[00:13:40] Increasing the size thanks to a technology that allows us to remove these disturbances introduced by the atmosphere that is called adaptive optic. That is the, what it is doing, think about you being in the swimming pool and looking at the face of your kid. If the light coming from the face of your kid is first reflected on a mirror that is acting the opposite of the water of the swimming pool, exactly the opposite in real time, then you will see the face of your kid exactly as it has to be because you are introducing a disturbance that is the negative disturbance of the water in the swimming pool and you have the face of your kid.

[00:14:28] Exactly. Of course, of course, to do, to do this, you need to know the face of your kid so that you can continuously compare the image that you are collecting and changing it until you see the face of your kid. These we call, we don't have our kid in the, in the space. We use a natural guide star. That we know how do they look like and therefore we can correct the light coming from the crossing the atmosphere because we know that star until we can close the loop.

[00:15:02] So this technology allows us to increase the size of the telescope, but our telescope have a so narrow field of view. That unfortunately, often, there is no natural guide star in the field of view that we want to observe. In this case, we create an artificial laser guide star. This is the reason why often the modern telescope have this laser pointing to the sky.

[00:15:35] These are not pointers. These are lasers that are artificially creating a star, because what they do, they excite the atoms of sodium. That are at 90 kilometers altitude, and then, and they create a star that they know how it looks like, because the laser, it's, it's, uh, the face of your kid that I was mentioning before is artificial because it is a cylinder of light, the 50 centimeter diameter.

[00:16:07] And therefore you need to close the loop of your light until you have a perfect cylinder of 50 centimeters. And this is how we are correcting. Most of the disturbances introduced by the atmosphere. So the James Webb is not affected by all of these disturbances. They have in the space, in the vacuum, and they're very, very, very clean.

[00:16:31] On ground, we also have many other, many other, um, constraints or difficulties. On ground, we have the gravity that is affecting the shape of our mirrors. On ground, we have the wind. We have the temperature gradients that are changing and affected. We have earthquakes, unfortunately, very often. There, of course, in the space they have completely different problems, but from some, in particular from the optical point of view, they are very stable.

[00:17:04] I don't want to absolutely mention that they are easily, not at all. They have many, many bigger. Problems, but in that to answer your question, what are the difference? What are, this is one of them. I mean, the, the telescope in the space, they have other kinds of problems different from the one that we have on ground and on ground.

[00:17:23] We have to fight against all of the ones that I've mentioned before. So we have constantly to correct. The shape of the mirrors of the optics against the wind, against the thermal, thermal variation, against gravity, is a constant, constant push correction of all the optics to fight against the wind, against the gradient variation, and all the, rest. 

[00:17:48] Markus: what kind of objects is the ELT built for? So what's the main point of interest for the telescope?

[00:17:57] Roberto: There are several. One of them is, uh, one of the main goal of the ELT that will be achieved with Andes, a future instrument, is to, um, spectroscopically analyze the light coming from the atmosphere of an exoplanet. 

[00:18:25] Okay, so today. We have identified the presence of exoplanet and we can speak about that afterwards because today they are detected by by indirect measurement.

[00:18:41] With the ELT, we will be not only capable of taking a picture of an exoplanet, something that today it is impossible because it's not feasible. to resolve, to distinguish light of a star from the light of an exoplanet that is turning around, because the light of an exoplanet is a reflected light, much less brilliant than the light of a star.

[00:19:09] So with the ELT, we will be capable of taking a photo because we can distinguish, we can separate the light of the exoplanet from the light of the star. We can resolve this. 

[00:19:19] Markus: Now, this is really, really, really exciting, um, because as you mentioned, our current state of discovering and analyzing exoplanets is the indirect route to analyze the light that does exoplanets. Or that is occluded by the star. Um, because the planet, the exoplanet passes the star and keeps occluding the light that comes from the star.

[00:19:44] And we analyze that light. And, but now with the lt, we have for the first time, the option, the opportunity to take a close look at direct look at the exoplanet. Now this is, this is really interesting, really fascinating. So, so what are the benefits of all this?

[00:20:03] Roberto: Well, today We don't, we don't know what it is, what it is on the planet. You cannot see what it is happening. Okay, today you can look at the moon, you see the craters, you see all of that, but on a planet, depending on the resolution that we will have, but we might distinguish what it is happening on, on that planet, what it is.

[00:20:24] I'm not going to a resolution of seeing if there are men or if there is water, but we will be for sure capable of seeing information on that one. I cannot tell you today.

[00:20:35] Markus: sorry if I'm interrupting, but currently we can only analyze the chemical buildup of the potential planet. Now with the ELT, we can take a photo and maybe make out mountains or whatnot, is that right?

[00:20:47] Roberto: yes, yes, exactly. Exactly. But the most exciting thing is not only the photo, that it could be a, allow me, touristic inspection. We can make the analysis of the atmosphere. So, the light coming from a star on the backside of the planet that is crossing the atmosphere of that planet can be analyzed by the ELT and see what is the composition of that atmosphere.

[00:21:20] We can see if there is chlorophyll, chlorophyll. If there is a water, oxygen, if there is pollution, if there are contaminants in there, if they also have cars that are driving and therefore you see CO in the, in the atmosphere. I mean, that will be really exciting,

[00:21:38] but this is, this is one of the many scientific goals


[00:21:41] Markus: to me, all this is mind blowingly exciting, because I think we just had Lisa Kaltenecker from the Carl Sagan Institute here on the show as a guest, and we were talking quite a bit about exoplanets, and that we're closing in on finding out as to if we're alone in the universe, or at least in the solar system and beyond, um, and Now we have the technology and we are very close to finding that ultimate solution.

[00:22:12] So, so which direction are we headed? What's your take?

[00:22:16] Roberto: I am. I am an engineer. Now I can say I am a manager. I am an engineer. I am not a scientist and therefore I'm mostly attracted by this kind of question. If first of all, Probe Andes is the second generation instrument, and this is an instrument that is the first one that will allow us to see, and that is now in phase.

[00:22:39] Of the design. And this is the instrument that will allow us to see, to perform this spectroscopy while to make an, an image of the exoplanet that will be allowed with, uh, mecado. That is one of the first instruments of the lt. And therefore, indeed, by the, this is these, uh, decades of the year, we should be able to have image of exoplanet.

[00:23:03] The closest is that, uh, four year light distance from us. Other pretty close are at, uh, 60 light years from us. There are many.

[00:23:18] Markus: The first one you mentioned is from the TRAPPIST system, right?

[00:23:21] Roberto: Is, yeah, is a four light years from us, so we'll see. We'll see.

[00:23:27] Markus: engineers have dreams, right? Don't you ever think about the big question?

[00:23:32] Roberto: Yeah, of course, of course. But today I don't have, if for you, the big question is, are we alone? Today, I don't have any sign from, from the environment that I navigate in. I am. Never, never about anything like that.

[00:23:52] Markus: There may be a signal. Who knows? Tomorrow, maybe. You never know. Um, fascinating. Um, tell us a little bit about the ELT and its environment. I think it's built on top of a mountain and the mountain had to be flattened first in order to make place for the construction site. Tell us a little bit about how difficult it is and how, how it was to build that telescope in the first place.

[00:24:19] Roberto: Okay, that's a 

[00:24:21] nice story. The, of course, 

[00:24:25] The investment, 

[00:24:26] uh, was, uh, started. The idea of the ELT comes from the

[00:24:37] Around 19 94, 19 95. The, yeah, the father is, uh, 

[00:24:44] Roberto Zi, that at that time he 

[00:24:47] was the director of Parallel Observatory. 

[00:24:51] I was there at that time, uh, uh, just coming 

[00:24:54] on the mountain. 

[00:24:56] I then became the 

[00:24:57] head of engineering deputy 

[00:24:59] director of that place. But 

[00:25:01] at that time, 

[00:25:02] they were started looking for the place.

[00:25:06] Where to put it, and of course also the design. At that time, the telescope was, 

[00:25:11] you might remember, called the 

[00:25:13] Owl. 

[00:25:14] Overwhelmingly large telescope.

[00:25:17] Markus: Was someone trying to make a joke here? 

[00:25:19] Roberto: no, no, no. At that time, it was, the main mirror was 

[00:25:23] 100 meter, 

[00:25:24] 100 meter diameter. Okay, let's move on with the story of 

[00:25:28] the site. So, 

[00:25:30] um, we started 

[00:25:33] the search and you have 

[00:25:35] to, um, Realize that Cerro 

[00:25:37] Armazones, that is the location where we are 

[00:25:41] actually building the ELT, 

[00:25:44] was one 

[00:25:45] of the candidates For the VLT, for the Very Large Telescope, then we decided, ESO decided that, uh, Cerro Paranal was less windy, a little bit better for the VLT, and therefore they 

[00:26:03] left 

[00:26:03] Cerro 

[00:26:04] Armazones. That became a mountain 

[00:26:07] free for any other 

[00:26:10] usage, any other, anybody that wanted to use. 

[00:26:13] And at that time, the TMT, that is one of our competitors, the 30 

[00:26:18] meter telescope, 

[00:26:20] Took Armazones and say, 

[00:26:21] ah, this is a good mountain. Let's 

[00:26:23] put, put, here our instruments and measure the quality 

[00:26:28] and blah, blah, blah. 

[00:26:30] ISO in the meantime, continued the search in 

[00:26:36] La Palma Island.

[00:26:39] That was the 

[00:26:39] only location in the Northern 

[00:26:41] Hemisphere, but there was also a location in Namibia, in Morocco, in Argentina. And, uh, there was 

[00:26:52] also, uh, another one 

[00:26:56] in Chile, 

[00:26:58] two more 

[00:26:59] in Chile. So we made a very, very 

[00:27:03] deep search, putting, 

[00:27:05] uh, uh, several instruments 

[00:27:07] on each of these mountains 

[00:27:08] because the First goal was scientific, 

[00:27:12] that it had to be a place where the scientific 

[00:27:16] goals could be easily performed, not the continuous rain or a lot of clouds or all of that.

[00:27:22] No, they had to be 

[00:27:24] first of all, 

[00:27:25] like that. And 

[00:27:28] during that search, 

[00:27:30] TMT 

[00:27:31] left again, said Amazon and say, 

[00:27:33] okay, no, we prefer to go and 

[00:27:35] build the TMT. Hawaii 

[00:27:39] Island on, you know, and to go 

[00:27:41] up there, there is already the Keck, 

[00:27:44] uh, uh, telescope, 

[00:27:46] the two, the two 

[00:27:47] Kecks, and, uh, so they 

[00:27:49] left again, three Cerro Armazones.

[00:27:53] We compared again, including also using the data that the TMT project had, uh, 

[00:27:59] had 

[00:28:00] recorded, comparing all the data with all the other mountains that I was mentioning before in the various locations, and finally, we pick. 

[00:28:09] Sarah Armazones said, no, this is very good, even if it is windy, but we can make it 

[00:28:15] and all 

[00:28:16] the situation turned out to be really fantastic for the scientific goal of 

[00:28:22] the telescope.

[00:28:24] Good. 

[00:28:25] Um, 

[00:28:26] uh, so once Sarah Armazones was decided, it was very good because this allows us to have, uh, quite the An important infrastructure already available in Chile because ESO is already operating the VLT. It's part of ALMA, it's operating La Silla, and this has a huge value. You know, already the logistic people, you have connection with the government and you know how to move all of that and many others.

[00:28:57] So this was A great advantage. One of the disadvantages of the Amazon is that it is a very seismic area and therefore this has imposed special requirements on the design of the dome, of the telescope, and the rest. Um, it is 25 kilometers east from

[00:29:20] Markus: Mm-Hmm.

[00:29:21] Roberto: Cerro Paranal, um, and therefore we had first built an access road to the telescope.

[00:29:29] We had to flatten the top of the mountain, as you said, in order to allow the excavation for the foundation. Unfortunately, exactly in the middle of the mountain, where everybody was 100 percent sure that it was rocky. There was half rock, half sand, and therefore this has complicated a bit the foundations of the telescope.

[00:29:57] So the foundation for the dome is fully a rock, one piece, but in the middle of the mountain, there is a half of that, that is sandy, complicating a bit the depth and the size of the foundation for the telescope. Um. Once the, the, the top of the mountain was flattened, then we started with all the excavation and all the rest.

[00:30:22] I dunno if this, uh, answered your question, Marco, or

[00:30:25] Markus: Absolutely. Absolutely. Uh, it's wonderful, wonderful story. I love stories. is this a very desolate place? Um, do, are there villages around? I guess not. I guess it's a very, it's a, it's a desert, right?

[00:30:39] Roberto: it's in the middle of the at. It is very isolated. It is 120 kilometer south of Anto Augusta. That is really an isolated city. The closest city to Anto Augusta is, uh, um, Kalama. That is something, uh, three hours driving. of more in the middle of the desert. Well, at the beginning When I joined is o in the 1999 and um, I was at parallel when they were integrating the third out of four telescopes at that time.

[00:31:30] There was no road. There was no access road. Every time that we were going up to the observatory, we had to find a new path with the car, with a 4x4, where we had two spare wheels, we have an additional can of gasoline and plenty of water because there was no Cellular sign, there was no radio that could reach us.

[00:31:59] So we were really, allow me, left alone over there. And that, uh, so at the beginning, it was really an adventure to achieve the, the observatory in the middle of nowhere. Uh, recently the Chilean government, uh, has paved the road with asphalt. So it is now really, there is this. Black Stripe in the middle of nowhere, in the middle that is crossing that part of the, of the desert that is coming very, very close to, to both, uh, Armazones, that is one where there is the very large telescope and the other one where we are building the ELT.

[00:32:38] Markus: What is Roberto, what is social life like at this research, uh, place? How many people live there and what is, how do people engage? Is there, is there anything other than work?

[00:32:51] Roberto: Yes, there is, ESO has really Taking care of all of that. Think that at the very beginning, during construction, the workers, we were living in containers for several years, similar to how we are living now when we go to Cerro Armazones, but then one of the first things that ISO built was a gymnasium where we can play tennis, play soccer.

[00:33:20] It's. In-house. So it's indoor in a big of this, uh, um, warehouse or let's call it like that, but it's pretty high. We, we, we play basketball, volleyball, soccer. There is also, uh, place where you can do all of these machines for, uh, uh, the, in the gymnasium. But, um, after a few years, ease of build also reside.

[00:33:48] Yeah. Exactly, to allow people to socialize, to have some exchanges, because in an observatory, you, you need to take care a lot of light pollution. We drive, for example, with the lights off at night, at night, our illumination are either the star or recently. We have put some lead on the side of the, of the, of the lanes in order to allow us to drive with no light on, on the car, exactly to avoid light pollution for the telescope.

[00:34:22] So recently the ESO has built a Residencia, Residencia that is sort of underneath, underground as well. Um, we have a swimming pool. We have a garden as well. We have a little cinema room. We have a, a, a music room where people can play loudly all the instruments that they want. Um, and therefore. That is where, uh, people socialize among that themself.

[00:34:57] We have a, a tour system. People go on the mountain on uh, a Tuesday and they go back home on the following Tuesday. Therefore, there is a sort, we call this tour eight, six, where for the six days on rest period, they stay at home or they can do what they want, um, less. People do a 5 2 turno. These are the people that go up on Monday and go down on Friday.

[00:35:26] These are people that, uh, have difficulties in sharing. I mean, it depends on the charge and the role that you have, but the majority of people on the mountain, they work on a 8 6, uh, 8 6 turno.

[00:35:39] Markus: How many people are there present at any time? Mm

[00:35:43] Roberto: I'm now speaking about Cerro Paranal, that is the observatory in operation. I can then tell you how many people are at Cerro Armazones in construction. Uh, the observatory today, there are around 120, 150 people. Um, 50 percent of them are ESO staff. The other one are people belonging to logistics, to other Let's say less, uh, critical for operation activities at the Cerro Armazones.

[00:36:20] Today, there are around, uh, 170, 180 people. In fact, uh, um, recently they have diminished the number because A couple of months ago, there were 250, but since they have finished the civil work, uh, civil works activity, they are now, uh, only in the mechanical integration part. And therefore they are not needed so many people as, uh, as many as were needed during the civil works construction.

[00:36:54] But these people are mostly belonging to the contractor. The contractor now working there is Alaya, an Italian company, belonging to a consortium Archer, and there are a few ease of stuff, less than 10 that are following up monitoring in terms of progress, quality, you of the rest, the activities that are happening during construction of the, of the 

[00:37:21] Markus: I think, I think this is important also to understand that, if I understand you correct, it's mostly engineering staff and and people who are maintaining the telescope. So, the actual scientific research personnel is not present because it makes no sense to be at the telescope because data is being analyzed somewhere else around the world I guess.

[00:37:50] Roberto: I guess you're now speaking about. Paranal Observatory that is in operation. Um, no, they still have astronomers, scientists on the mountain.

[00:38:02] Markus: Okay,

[00:38:02] Roberto: You, you can do, you can do, um, but astronomers, they will always be on demand. Either our visitors or our ESO staff. So the telescope today is operated. Locally, not inside the telescope.

[00:38:21] There is a control room that is 300 meters far away. We will also operate the ELT from the control room at Cerro Paranal, 25 kilometers away. But the scientists, the astronomer. These are physically there to operate the telescope. I will mention that we have two ways of operating. One is in visitor mode.

[00:38:47] That is when the scientists interested in the data send to ESO how to, how they want to be. to observe their scientific object. And therefore ESO takes care of performing the observation. Or we have the visitor coming on the mountain and they monitor, follow up constantly the Data that is acquired allow them to potentially fine tune the final observation that is always done by a telescope and instrument operator, that is ESO stuff.

[00:39:29] So the astronomer is looking at the data that are achieved, that are obtained by the telescope and instrument operator. And he decide, okay, yes, you keep going as I wrote, as I already provided you the information or they say no, and little change here, depending of the information that they are acquiring in real time.

[00:39:49] Markus: hmm. Roberto, um, I'd like to go back a couple of minutes now. When you mentioned that You're supposed to drive with lights off, um, on your cars. What are the light rules at this site? So is there, if, if I go to, um, the observatory, are there any light rules? So, for example.

[00:40:18] Um, don't turn on lights after this and that time or use no lighters if you need to smoke or whatnot. I guess it's a very dark place and there are no advertisements outside of buildings, 

[00:40:32] Roberto: there are advertisement along the access road. It is a big sign. No light beam from beyond these 

[00:40:40] Markus: Really? Really? 

[00:40:42] Roberto: Yes. so there are all of these, uh, little orange led at the side of the street that will help. Of course, you, you, you can drive at five, 10 kilometers per hour.

[00:40:56] Markus: Yes.

[00:40:56] Roberto: So, uh, and this is happening as something like probably one kilometer from the entrance to the observatory.

[00:41:06] Markus: Mhm.

[00:41:07] Roberto: And therefore your car is not illuminating, your beams are not illuminating straight inside the telescope. That will damage the image that the telescope is acquiring. So you can drive only with the position beam, the one that are very, very, very light that you don't see anything. You cannot see the, the cars have the precedence to the pedestrian.

[00:41:38] Because the pedestrian can't see the car, the car driver cannot see the pedestrian if they are crossing. Everybody that is walking has a little torch that is requested to illuminate the floor, never towards the sky, but the floor to show himself. So when you go there, and the people that are giving you the key of your rooms, Attached to the key, there is this little torch that is to help you going outside at night.

[00:42:09] So you can go outside, of course, and you use this little, little torch to illuminate the floor. But believe me, after three minutes that you have been outside, you don't need any torch because the sky alone illuminates the ground. So you let your eyes open. In order to see in the dark and you will enjoy a fantastic natural view that is, uh, every time that I go there, it is something that is fantastic.

[00:42:45] Often I lay down in the middle of the desert and look at the sky because it's such a feeling, such a beauty, that is a fantastic, fantastic. I remember in 2007 when there was the comet McNaught in the sky over there. Wow. That was superb. That was extraordinary. Beautiful.

[00:43:10] Markus: Roberto, you're giving me literal goosebumps right now, um, because I can really, really understand what you're talking about, because a couple of decades ago when I was young, when we were young, the night sky was More visible. The stars, the Milky Way was visible and through light pollution we lost that miracle. . Is that right?

[00:43:36] Roberto: It's astonishing. Look, it's astonishing. I often have driven back home at night or I was driving back to the observatory at night. I stop in the middle of that road and I lay down exactly because I am alone. I can see and feel the universe, the sky. It is something that is. It is a feeling that is, uh, unforgettable.

[00:44:06] It is fantastic.

[00:44:09] Markus: It's overwhelming. There is some strange force that takes control of my body at least. So I guess yours as well. It's very emotional.

[00:44:22] Roberto: Yes. Yes. Yes. And sometimes I've done that also with some visitors that were in the car with me. I said, you know what, I'll let you feel 

[00:44:30] Markus: Get out of the car. Huh.

[00:44:32] Huh. 

[00:44:35] Roberto: It's great.

[00:44:37] Markus: I think this could be something that I would dearly miss if I were in your shoes to have had that opportunity. to have that night sky experience and then go back to Europe and not see it anymore. It must be a strange, a strange situation to have.

[00:44:56] Roberto: It is. I am, uh, super lucky that I can go back there more often. When I left Paranal in, uh, when was that in 2008, and I was coming to work here in Munich. I turned around because at that time I still didn't know what I was coming to do here. They called me, please come here to Munich. We need your help in the design of the ELT.

[00:45:20] I said, okay, in the design, but we still didn't know where it would have gone. It could have gone in Namibia or in La Palma or whatever. So 

[00:45:28] I turn around

[00:45:28] and say, I don't know if I will ever see you here again.

[00:45:33] That was really, really tough. And when they said we selected again, Sarah Mazzone, I said, look at that.

[00:45:40] I'm back and I'm back as much as I want, more or less. So

[00:45:44] Markus: Yes. Hmm. Roberto, um, tell us a little bit about yourself. What, why you're doing what you're doing right now, how you became the manager of the ELT. Has that always been your path from the earliest stages of your life?

[00:46:06] Roberto: I, um, I am a mechanical engineer and I have always wanted to become, when I was young, a mechanical engineer. Nice. I studied in Naples, south of Italy, and, uh, I, after the graduation, I did, uh, fellowships in, um, combustion problem, and I was studying combustion problems to improve the burning of the gasoline in the diesel engines.

[00:46:42] By means of, uh, it was at the very beginning of the injectors inside the combustion chamber of the diesel engine. And I was studying all of that, uh, with, um, optical technique. So I completed my study at, uh, Lawrence Berkeley Institute in California, close to Berkeley. Then I came back. The position at the university didn't show up.

[00:47:09] There were promises, promises, but you know how it is. I said, okay, now I need to start working for real. um, I was hired by an Italian aerospace research center and I was at the beginning called there to apply the optical techniques that I was using to study the combustion flame in a plasma wind tunnel in a hypersonic plasma wind tunnel.

[00:47:40] Fantastic project that was a wind tunnel to test the reentry condition of the Hermes of the space shuttle. And I need to study the behavior of the thermal protection system of the Space Shuttle when exposed to Mach 14. The real speed of the reentry condition from the atmosphere. So at the beginning, I was the expert in all of these optical technique.

[00:48:06] Then I was the project engineer and therefore when they, when the project, uh, terminated, I said, and now what I'm going to do, I don't want to now do, there was no new project that was, uh, Um, as, uh, exciting as the one that they complete, believe me, you can go in the web and look at that is called the Scirocco Plasma Wind Tunnel in the south of Italy.

[00:48:34] It is one of the biggest to test the reentry condition. It has a cam, a chamber to put one to one the nose. Of the Hermes, of the Space Shuttle,

[00:48:43] Markus: But again, you're, you're, you're, were you mentioning Mach 14?

[00:48:49] Roberto: Mach 14, on ground,

[00:48:51] Markus: And that's, that's reproducible in that tunnel?

[00:48:56] Roberto: yes, by means of the, a gigantic, a gigantic nozzle that has a throat of one centimeters in the exit of two meters, where you have a delta pressure in out that allows you the, the air. To accelerate, you are converting all the thermal energy, that's why the plasma that we were heating, into kinetic energy.

[00:49:20] In Mach 14, it was Fantastic. It was a fantastic project. So

[00:49:26] Markus: Is this place still around?

[00:49:27] Roberto: it is still around. It is, it's a big one. It has a, um, an ter of, uh, 20 megawatt electrical, 20 megawatt. It has a huge, uh, evacuation in, uh, in, uh, diffuser that is, uh, vacuum diffusers. Very, very. It's very sophisticated, very advanced, and it is still one of the biggest in the world to test all of 

[00:49:59] Markus: tunnels. Wow. 

[00:50:01] Roberto: So when it finished, it was in the 1997, 1998, I said, no, I want to do something else. I was just married with my wife. We had one kid, one daughter, we were living in Naples. My wife was supporting me. She's a biologist and she was working. I said, okay, no, I know, I see that you are excited. You would like to do something else. She was supporting me in looking for something else. And at that time, there were two things that I was trying to become an astronaut or or to go to work for ESO in the middle of nowhere in Paranal. So at the end for the astronaut, I end up in the, to be in the first 50, at that time Italy was selecting, but I 

[00:50:48] Markus: 55 0.

[00:50:50] Roberto: 5 0 within the first 50 I was, but I have a knee with a screw inside because I was playing fencing and during a match, I broke my ligament of the left knee.

[00:51:02] So I was, uh, surgery 

[00:51:05] Markus: so much for your a astronaut career.

[00:51:08] Roberto: exactly. So instead of becoming an astronaut, I went as a mechanical engineer in the middle of nowhere, Antofagasta, the Atacama desert, to build the, to help in building, in setting up the VLT, the Very Large Telescope.

[00:51:25] Markus: Mm-Hmm.

[00:51:26] Roberto: Then from mechanical engineer, I was the head of engineering and then head of engineering, deputy director of the observatory.

[00:51:33] And then they called me back here in Europe, where I'm working now. And since 2014. I am the program manager of the, of the LT

[00:51:44] Markus: hmm. So how, how far into the LT project, the construction are you right now? When will it be fully operational? Mm-Hmm.

[00:51:56] Roberto: um, 2028. Today is the date that we are fighting to have the first light of the telescope. We have last year we passed the 50%. Overall, we, today we are probably between 55 and 60% progress. We have, uh, the, the dome and the telescope, the mechanical structure should be ready by the middle of 2026. So in two and a half year, more or less, we are progressing with all the rest, manufacturing, all the pieces.

[00:52:36] We are fully funded, as I said at the beginning. So, uh, of course we have still. Many difficulties from a technological point of view today. The highest technological risk is the M5. The M5 is, uh, could appear as the easiest because it's a flat elliptic mirror. 2. 7 by 2. 3, but it is a tip tilted and therefore during the tip tilting at 10 Hertz has to remain flat and therefore being pretty big and tilting it.

[00:53:17] You understand that it can bend if it is not rigid and light. So it is made out of a silicon carbide and you can say, okay, also Herschel has a telescope made up of silicon carbide. Unfortunately, the requirement of. Polishing of the optical surface are much more stringent than airshell. Exactly for what I was saying before, that they are in the infrared wavelength, we are in the visible, and therefore our Polishing has a much more stringent requirement, and this cannot be achieved by silicon carbide alone.

[00:53:55] We need to deposit by vapor carbon deposition, a layer that can allow to reach the less than 40 nanometer RMS wavefront error on the front surface, on the optical surface. And this is a technology that We are pushing beyond the state of the art, therefore we are working with the involved company, French company, Boostech and Safran Reusk, Mersen, Boostech and Safran Reusk, in order to progress on this technology.

[00:54:31] Markus: What are the, what are the odds that this part fails because it's too difficult?

[00:54:39] Roberto: There is the, this thin layer, we call it CBD, carbon vapor deposition

[00:54:50] Markus: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

[00:54:52] Roberto: is deposited. It's at the end, is not deposited because it is a special process that is sort of 

[00:54:59] evaporating from the blank.

[00:55:01] Markus: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

[00:55:02] Roberto: We need the pretty thick. layer of these, uh, let's call it coating on top of this. And the mirror is made up of six petals that are then braced together.

[00:55:17] So the thickness of these, uh, CVD layer has to be thick. Much thicker than never done before, in order to cover the potential misalignment of when brazing the six petals together, that then have to be polished at once, all together, single piece. First difficulties. Second difficulty is the brazing of these petals that have to have a uniform surface, fully brazed.

[00:55:50] And this is another very, very difficult technology to then deposit also on top of there, this material to be polished. So we are speaking really about something where. There are many people interested in particularly from the aerospace, because the silicon carbide is used a lot also in, uh, in the airplane because it's very light, but very stiff.

[00:56:18] So this is a, another very interesting aspect that many, many technologies used for the ELT have found. Other application in completely different environment. For example, the laser that I was mentioning before to create the artificial star are used by the dentist for some special process on the tooth.

[00:56:42] Markus: Huh. Mm

[00:56:43] Roberto: There is, uh, the ator depositioning actuator under the M1 segments that they foundation.

[00:56:56] That they've been developed for the telescope will certainly find other applications somewhere else because you know that the anti seismic device protection for the telescope,

[00:57:07] Markus: hmm.

[00:57:08] Roberto: that is a very interesting aspect because the telescope, as you can imagine, has to be very stiff. But if you have an earthquake, you want it very fluid so that you do not transmit the 

[00:57:21] Markus: Don't break it. Mm hmm. 

[00:57:24] Roberto: to create some anti seismic device that are at the same time very stiff and very fluid when there is the earthquake. So there is an active system that is reading the acceleration in order to detach the motion of the ground. from the telescope on top. So there are many, many new ideas that have been developed for the ELT that will certainly find other applications in a completely different, uh, Environment.

[00:57:54] Markus: Mm hmm. Let's talk about observing, um, the, the first observations. What is the first object, um, that is being looked at is, is, is this like just pure and dry science and, and scientific, or is there something else behind it?

[00:58:15] Who gets the first one?

[00:58:16] Roberto: You cannot imagine the pressure that we will have on that. Or better, you can imagine. There is already, there is already a competition of, uh, the various instruments that have to be first. Today it is a Mikado, that is an imager camera, in the visible, in the near infrared. Uh, but of course, uh, If there is another instruments that come earlier and the telescope is ready, we will not be waiting for the one in case, you know, one of them might have some difficulties at the last moment or things like that.

[00:58:53] So today I cannot answer your question and I don't have, and also because I'm not one of these scientists, I am, I am making the highway to reach the knowledge available for the 

[00:59:04] Markus: Sure. 

[00:59:05] Roberto: various scientists.

[00:59:06] Markus: But I guess that observation times are already or the schedules are already being filled for the years to come.

[00:59:14] Roberto: Not yet. Not yet, exactly, because we still don't know who is going to be first, in which configuration, and the rest.

[00:59:21] Markus: Yes, yes, I understand. Roberto, I have, um, an odd question, maybe. Um, would you be ready to go into space yourself if the call came?

[00:59:34] You would. Because you wanted to be an astronaut anyway. So

[00:59:37] Roberto: Exactly.

[00:59:38] Markus: If someone came around and said, Hey, I don't care about your knee, hop on board, you would go.

[00:59:44] Roberto: Immediately. Immediately.

[00:59:47] Markus: So how about your wife? Does she know?

[00:59:50] Roberto: Of course I was flying, I took a driving, a driving license, pilot license when I was in Chile. So I was, uh, flying, uh, with all the beauty of flying over Paranal over, uh, Escondida. That is one of the biggest mining company in, uh, copper. Beautiful. So yes, I, I would jump on that. Uh. Immediately.

[01:00:17] Markus: Good. So let's, um, put ourselves now into that mindset of going into space. Um, and let's not just go to the moon, let's go somewhere else, maybe Mars. And we know it's a very long time. It's a very long journey to get there. So my question to you, um, Roberto, would be, um, what kind of music, what kind of one song would you not want to miss on that journey? To keep you entertained, to keep you in good spirits, because the background is that we have a Spotify playlist. It's the playlist for the aspiring space traveler. And each guest of this podcast contributes one of their favorite tunes to that playlist. What's, what's your tune? Ah. Yes.

[01:01:12] Roberto: today, when I was young, there was one that I loved to hear and when I hear it recently came up again, it brings me back. Fantastic. And it is, it could sound a little bit ridiculous, but I love to hear, uh, the Supertramp that are, uh, Special one, I am also, and I am telling it to you because I've never told it to anybody, I am creating a Spotify list for when, uh, I hope I will open the telescope with some music inside. You know, it must be great to open the observing door. To the sky and knowing what is going to observe over there in terms of capability, power, and the rest.

[01:02:13] Markus: Yes.

[01:02:14] Roberto: So that is, uh, going to be fantastic and something that would accompany the opening

[01:02:24] Markus: Yes.

[01:02:25] Roberto: the, of the, of the door. For me, it is the Bolero di Ravel.

[01:02:33] Markus: Yes, of course. 

[01:02:35] Should we, Should we, should we, add this also to, well, now you need to decide. Is it Supertramp, which tune from Supertramp, or would you add the Bolero

[01:02:45] to, would go, I would go for the Bolero di Ravello.

[01:02:48] well, also for your journey?

[01:02:50] Roberto: yes, 

[01:02:52] yes, 

[01:02:52] Markus: Good, so be it. Wonderful. I may need to connect you with a great person from the music industry, I know, who may be interested in supporting you with, with that great opening moment. So, so let me, let me give this an additional thought. That

[01:03:16] Roberto: You see, you see the moment, the moment where,

[01:03:20] where at the first light, you have everybody around inside the dome, dark, completely dark. Everybody has acclimatized their eyes. And suddenly you start hearing the noise of opening the door, but this has to be accompanied by an important music because it's opening to you, to all the people, the window towards the universe that is now going to explore by a machine.

[01:03:52] That is incredible, is a machine that can read one euro at 10 kilometers distance. It is a machine that can discover something that today is unimaginable. So it is, uh, and that's why I need the music that is bringing the emotion. That's why I thought about the Bolero de Ravel. That is a growing music that is driving you towards, uh.

[01:04:15] Special place.

[01:04:17] Markus: Wonderful. And, um, another question to you. This, um, podcast is called the Space Cafe Podcast, a coffee place for the ears and for the mind. And now and then in, you as an Italian, I'm not telling you anything about coffee. Um, you now and then love to have a good espresso to energize yourself. Now, why don't you share an espresso for the mind with me, with the audience, something you think that could invigorate and inspire the audiences and myself.

[01:05:01] And you can pick whatever kind of topic you want to pick. What's your espresso for the mind? And

[01:05:10] Roberto: In terms of subject,

[01:05:17] I love sailing. Could that bring you a good coffee? I love sailing.

[01:05:28] Markus: that would invigorate. Tell me a little more. You love sailing. Why could it be? So you would recommend to go sailing?

[01:05:41] Roberto: Absolutely. That is Okay. Roberto enjoyed the sky because, uh, sailing at night, it brings you to another place where you can enjoy the sky, going of course, I used to sail quite a lot in the Mediterranean, going from Naples to Sardinia, and therefore you really are far, far away from light pollution places. And therefore, on top of enjoying the view of the sky, you hear also The splashes of the waves on the boat with no alternative noise, rather than the wind in your ears and the view of the sky at night. It is another fantastic feeling that many sailors have when they're sailing at night and so on. So that is another fantastic feeling that I Often, when I can go and have, particularly in summertime, but enjoying that one is, uh, it could be a fantastic coffee.

[01:06:59] Markus: Tamay, thank you so much for taking the time and letting us into your world, into your fascinating world. And 

[01:07:09] inspire us. Thank you.

[01:07:10] Roberto: Thank you.​

[01:07:11] Markus: And that brings us, my friends, to the end of today's interstellar journey on the Space Cafe Podcast. We hope you enjoyed this fascinating. We dive into the world of the European Extremely Large Telescope and the captivating stories from our special guest, Roberto Tamay. It's conversations like these that remind me of the incredible human spirit that drives us to explore the unknown and push the boundaries of our understanding.

[01:07:49] So yes, funding for such kind of research is important and will always be important. Before you return to your earthly endeavors, my friends, we have a small request. If you liked this episode, please take a moment to rate our podcast. Your ratings and reviews help us reach more space enthusiasts like you, and keep this Cafe, bustling with intriguing conversations and stellar guests.

[01:08:19] So don't be shy. Let us know what you think. Thanks for joining us on this galactic adventure and remember to keep your eyes on the stars. Until next time, this is the Space Cafe Podcast signing off. Stay curious. Stay inspired, and keep exploring. Bye bye. 

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