Spanish astronomer Xavier Barcons took over the reins this month of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the world’s foremost international astronomy organization. It is currently building the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), destined to be the world’s largest when completed in 2024.
In the 1980s Barcons set up the first x-ray astronomy group in Spain at the University of Cantabria. He is a specialist on active galactic nuclei, superbright galactic cores thought to be caused by giant black holes sucking in and heating up quantities of gas and dust. To study them, he’s been heavily involved in European x-ray space telescopes such as XMM-Newton and the forthcoming Athena, due for launch in 2028. Barcons has also worked at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Spain’s Council for Scientific Research, and served as chair of ESO’s council from 2012 to 2014.
He joins ESO in a period of high activity as the organization embarks on the E-ELT, its biggest project so far. But a shadow hangs over the €1.1 billion facility: Because of a shortfall in funding, the ESO council has only approved a first phase of construction, which will produce a working telescope but with certain desired components delayed until extra funding can be found. Those components include 210 of the 798 segments that make up the 39-meter main mirror, back-up mirror segments, some lasers for the adaptive optics system, and a few instrument components.