Astronomy in Ireland has been given a major boost as Ireland formally joined one of the world's top international astronomy organisations, the European Southern Observatory.

Membership gives Irish astronomers access to ESO's range of massive powerful radio and optical telescopes and instruments that are situated at a number of sites across Chile.

It also enables Irish businesses to bid for lucrative contracts from ESO for the first time.

"It is important for our scientists, our researchers that we are part of worldwide research, and this is why we are joining," Minister of State with responsibility for research, John Halligan, told RTÉ News ahead of this afternoon's official signing ceremony.

"It also has the potential to create jobs and create business for Ireland."

Ireland has become the 16th member of the organisation, which was founded in 1962.

Joining the organisation is costing Ireland €14.66 million. However, that cost will be spread across ten years, which means along with the annual membership fee Ireland will pay €3.5m per annum for the next decade.

But, based on other examples, experts predict that once Irish companies start winning contracts, the return to the Irish economy will more than cover the annual membership fees.

Currently Irish companies are securing contracts worth up to seven times what Ireland pays to be a member of the European Space Agency, for example.

ESO currently issues procurement contracts worth a total of around €150m each year, but when special projects are under way this figure can be even higher.

Those in the astronomy community also predict major gains for Irish astronomers, who for the first time are entitled to not only apply for research time on ESO equipment, but also to lead international research consortia.

"From the point of view of Irish astronomers, this is a wonderful opportunity," said Professor Tom Ray from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

"It means we will be able to lead programmes looking at, for example, the birth of stars and galaxies, the births of planets, the interaction of different stars together and we weren't able to do that in the past.

"And we'll now have access to the full wavelength range accessible to astronomy, because nowadays astronomy isn't just optical astronomy, using your eyes to see what is there.

"You have to use gamma rays, microwaves, infrared radiation and the European Southern Observatory at its facilities in Chile has all of these telescopes available to Irish astronomers."

A lecturer in Physics at University College Cork said today is a wonderful one for Irish astronomy.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Professor Paul Callanan said membership of ESO will give Irish astronomers access to a broad range of observations that, up until now, they have not been able to carry out.

He said ESO can expect to receive many proposals from Irish astronomers when they open their email next week, as Irish astronomers have been preparing proposals for some time.

"The kind of things that Irish astronomers can do will be to lead programmes to find planets around other stars, for example, programmes to try to understand the most distant explosions in the universe, trying to understand the nature of dark matter and indeed dark energy," Prof Callanan said.

"These are all topics that really cannot be done unless you have access to the most powerful facilities and ESO membership will give Irish members exactly that."

Ireland's entry into ESO follows a long campaign by the Irish professional astronomy community, numbering around 100, which culminated last year in an announcement by the Government that the State would join.

It comes as ESO is in the process of constructing the world's largest optical telescope, the €1.2 billion European Extremely Large Telescope, on a mountain top at Cerro Armazones, near the site of its existing Very Large Telescope in Paranal in Chile.

When complete in 2024 it will have a 39-metre wide mirror and will explore some of the biggest scientific challenges of our time, including the search for Earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of stars, where life might exist.

ESO also has observing sites at La Silla and Chajnantor in Chile.