XI Día de Nuestra Ciencia, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 28 May 2019

My two months on Duolingo tell me that the title of this post means the day of our science 11. As if it had been intentionally organised that way my first day at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) coincided with the yearly celebration of all the excellent scientific research that takes place here. It was a perfect introduction to the department. It was striking to see all aspects of modern astronomy covered from solar system to stars to galaxies to cosmology. In addition to the huge variation in fields there was also a large variation in method from instrument development to observation to theory. I was particularly impressed by the telescopes the IAC has access to including the ‘jewel in the crown’ the Gran Telescopio Canarias:

Figure 1. The biggest telescope in the world.

Hopefully I will go observing to the site in the next couple of weeks and will blog about it then. The day was also a chance to meet my new colleagues and discuss ideas for research. I’m excited to work on new things in astronomy and get started immediately. Some of our ideas will involve Herschel far infrared data so the work we did at Sussex will also be useful but I’m already looking at new papers and will write about our projects in the coming weeks. In the mean time I need to finish all my bureaucracy including applying for my Physical Person Certificate.  I’m quietly confident that I’m going to pass. In the mean time here is the latest addition to my collection of group photos:

Figure 2. One day I aim to publish a Where’s Wally style compilation of group photos in which Wally gradually ages.

You can read a full summary of all the talks in English here.

SPICA conference, Crete, Greece, 20-23 May 2019

This week I have been in Crete for a conference on the Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA). SPICA is a proposed far infrared telescope that will have a slightly scaled down Herschel style mirror that crucially will be cooled to below 8K meaning it will offer a huge increase in sensitivity compared to the larger but warm (80K) Herschel mirror. The cold mirror means that the telescope will be six orders of magnitude more sensitive than Herschel and will no longer be limited by the telescope’s own emission but will be limited by the true far infrared background. Figure 1 shows the current design for the instrument aiming for a 2030 (ish) launch.

Figure 1. The SPICA telescope design.

There is currently no instrument observing the far infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, 2021 launch) and the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA). The instrument will feature three instruments covering imaging, spectroscopy, and polarimetry over the range 12-230 micrometers.

The week in Crete has involved investigating all the possible science that can be done with the instrument. This is critical to the designers of the telescope when making engineering decisions about the three instruments. When designing an experiment it is critical to iterate between thinking about key science questions that could be answered by conceivable technology and then designing possible configurations. It is then possible to go back to work on possible measurements and how the designs could be improved and so on until we converge on a compromise between world class science, cost, and technological feasibility.

Figure 2. The obligatory group photo.

SPICA is an extremely exciting prospect for investigating the far-infrared universe in a time where no other instrument will be working in that region. The Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) features in galaxy spectra at those wavelengths contain a wealth of information about star formation and the redshift of objects. There are three proposals for the European Space Agency’s ‘M5’ call which will be decided in around a year. The competition will be fierce but SPICA would certainly have a huge impact on many areas of astronomy.

LSST UK multi-wavelength workshop 25-27 September 2017

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Copyright LSST corporation

I spent last week at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge discussing how the UK can take advantage of the incredible imaging data that promises to be produced by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The telescope is set to receive first light in 2019 and there is a vast amount of work to do to prepare for the deluge of data that is about to flow out of Chile. One of the challenges is making sure we make best use of UK expertise and work in close collaboration with the majority of LSST scientists in the US.

We were meeting to discuss how best to target UK research to complement work being done elsewhere. There are some definite niches available to us, partly because of access we have to some UK data and partly for the expertise in multiwavelength science that has been built up here.

There were a number of excellent talks about Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) and galaxy formation based on studies right across the wavelengths (x-rays to radio waves). There were a number of talks about photometric redshifts which is of direct relevance to the Herschel Extragalactic Legacy Project (HELP) that we are currently working on in Sussex. Ultimately it seems that building some software within the LSST stack that can handle UK near infrared images may be the best first step to preparing for possible multiwavelength LSST science.

We have around two years to prepare for the first LSST images and it is vital that we work to have software in place ready for it. On a personal note I think developing any code for multiwavelength pixel-based image analysis within the LSST software stack is an opportunity for us early career scientists to build expertise that will make us employable over the lifetime of LSST.

On a completely separate note; being back in Cambridge was a great chance to have a look around the West Cambridge site which has changed drastically since I was an undergraduate at the Cavendish. I visited the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology which was extremely impressive. There has clearly been a massive investment in the various science departments that have been built/extended there. I look forward to seeing how it continues to develop and all the research that will be generated there by what is essentially a load of geeks in a field.

MIGHTEE Meeting, Oxford 18-21 September 2017

A MeerKAT dish. By Morganoshell – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47588577

I wasn’t very familiar with the MeerKAT International Giga-Hertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) survey or even the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT)* which is a precursor to the enormously ambitious Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Gotta Love Physics Acronyms (GLPA). It reminded me what an exciting time to be doing astronomy it is with some huge data sets on the way at unprecedented scales. It was a chance to think about how to tie together the quite disparate data from various wavelength regimes which fed in quite well to the LSST meeting the following week.

A lot of the fields overlap with the LSST deep drilling fields as well as the Herschel extragalactic fields. The four fields are XMM-LSS, COSMOS, ELAIS-S1 and CDFS (names of areas on the sky that have been previously imaged)**. The challenge will be to move beyond the catalogue based cross matching done so far and towards dealing directly with pixel data.

I did my masters project on the SKA back in 2006 and it is amazing to see it starting to take shape with actual radio dishes on the ground in South Africa.

Being in Oxford was also a useful opportunity to meet with other members of the Herschel Extragalactic Legacy Project (HELP) to talk about the last stages of the project and how we are going to deliver all the final data. Something we can talk about further at the HELP meeting in Sussex in October.

* I can’t find where the Meer in MeerKAT comes from. I think there are actual meerkat populations near the telescope but this might be a prime example of acronym nesting.

** XMM-LSS: X-ray Multi Mirror telescope Large Scale Structure survey
COSMOS: Cosmological Evolution Survey***
ELAIS-S1: South 1
CDFS: Chandra Deep Field South

*** I know.