Astrophysicist renewed as ESO's Director General until 2026
July 29, 2021
The ESO (European Southern Observatory) Council has unanimously decided to extend Barcons' appointment as Director General of the organization until 2026. With this renewal, the excellent work of the physicist at the head of the observatory, since he took office in 2017, is recognized.
Xavier Barcons has been linked to the European organization for much of his career. "This is like the UN, it has its own regime, to the point that if the police have to enter the facilities I have to authorize it", jokes the physicist, who began as manager of the National Astronomy and Astrophysics Program of the Ministry of Education and Science, and then became the architect and coordinator of Spain's accession to ESO in 2006, and Spain's delegate to the ESO Council (2007-2011), finally holding the positions of Vice President and President (2012-2014) of the same Council. And it is during this period that the E-ELT project, the Extremely Large Telescope, one of the scientific milestones of the last century, was finally approved.
In fact, it is so important to Barcons that, under his renewed mandate, he intends to complete the full construction of the telescope, which experts say will be "the world's biggest eye on the sky" located on Cerro Armazones (Chile), and which is expected to make its first observations in 2027. "When my term ends the ELT has to be on track, it will be the first to enter operation and it is the only one to have full funding". Another goal he has set for himself as director general is "to leave a consolidated, modern, 21st century and sustainable organization".
In addition, within the observatory, Barcons has supported another major project: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), located in the middle of the Atacama Desert. "The economy of the area needs to transform, to enter an economy more focused on knowledge and not so much on the extraction of natural resources, and we need to be part of this evolution in social sustainability", explains the researcher.
Until now, the researcher had developed his activity at the Institute of Physics of Cantabria, (IFCA, CSIC-UC), of which he was a founding member and first director between 1995 and 1999. "I always say that the first meeting of the IFCA scientific staff was held in an office and there were eight of us". "The diversity that comes with working in an entity like a research institute was something we had to learn as we went along", the scientist recalls.
A life dedicated to astronomy
There is no doubt that Barcons has had a brilliant career, both in academia and in science policy. He was born in 1959, in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Catalonia. He received his B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Physics from the University of Barcelona in 1981. He completed his PhD in Statistical Physics in 1985, at the University of Cantabria (UC). His academic career began here at the UC, first as assistant professor and then as a lecturer until 1993, when he became Senior Research Scientist at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and Research Professor in 2002. In parallel (1986-87), he attended Cambridge University as a postdoctoral fellow, to which he returned as an astronomer a decade later, in 1997.
First X-ray astronomy group
At the end of 1980, Barcons founded the first X-ray Astronomy group in Spain, which has obtained extensive observing time in different astronomical facilities (ESO, Gran Telescopio Canarias, XMM-Newton, Spitzer Observatory, WISE, ALMA), with the aim of better understanding the nature of AGN and their relationship with galaxy formation.
ESA, Athena and XMM-Newton
Xavier Barcons has dedicated part of his career to the European Space Agency (ESA), being its scientific advisor from 2001 to 2005 and participating in space programs of the agency such as the XMM-Newton observatory and the XEUS / IXO mission, whose scientific team he chaired on behalf of Europe. He is currently part of the coordination group of the ESA's Athena (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics) mission, which is expected to be launched in 2028.
Active galactic nuclei in the distant Universe
Barcons' research has focused on astronomy at X-ray wavelengths and, until the late 1990s, Quasi-Stellar Object absorption lines and the intergalactic medium. He has taken part in and led numerous research projects, some of which have formed the backbone of the XMM-Newton surveys. His studies have unveiled obscured Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) in the Distant Universe, the evolution of the AGN population or the apparent mismatch between the X-ray and optical views of AGN.
He has also published more than 250 papers in international peer-reviewed journals that have received nearly 3,500 citations. He has supervised the research of PhD students, has given talks at international conferences and symposia, and has chaired and served on the scientific organizing committee of more than 50 international conferences.