X-ray astronomy not dead yet : NuSTAR

June 14, 2012

The news earlier this week was that ESO announced the ELT was DEFINITELY MAYBE going ahead. There is just this kinda small money detail thing. Anyway, all systems standby-to-go ! When they give us the money ! Actually, it does exude a feeling of almost unstoppable momentum. And furthermore no more major re-designs seem likely. We know what we will build. SKA has also picked up momentum of course. Phase I is a done deal and looks dead good already, but Phase II is still an opium dream really. Anyhoo. With all these exciting but expensive things looming, you can see why STFC needed to close down those tinnsy-winnsy 4m telescopes. Need that headroom !

PeterC wrote a post linking this to the earlier Athena shenanigans : OIR and X-ray astronomy seem to be hitting the all-or-nothing funding wall at the same time. Meanwhile old chum Martin is doing his Cassandra thing in Nature.  But But But the lovely news from yesterday is that NuSTAR had a successful launch. You could read the Beeb version here, watch the NASA launch movie here, or get the real goods from the SPIE paper here. (Seven down is the one to read).  NuStAR is  a hard X-ray mission which cost only $170M. The picture below (taken from the NuSTAR web site) does the sell :

Effective area of NuSTAR mirrors versus energy. Jeez, thats good.

At hard X-ray energies it is WAY more sensitive than XMM or Chandra. On the other hand, the resolution is fairly crummy – 10 arcsec FWHM. So you can see that it won’t be a general purpose X-ray observatory, but it will do some areas of science fantastically well. I would say the most exciting mission of recent times was WISE, and that wasn’t billions either. So it can be done.

Its also technologically cute, with a 10m extendable boom, a multi-layer coating mirror to get reflectivity at slightly better than the otherwise tiny grazing incidence angles, and Cadmium Zinc thingy detectors. And all the data will be public.

So good luck to NuSTAR … and especially with the boom opening !


SKA final for definite actually for real type decision

May 25, 2012

So the news is out : the SKA site decision has finally been made. It was on Beeb TV , with Pallab Ghosh meandering around Jodders, triffic fun. The official SKA announcement is here and the South African Minister’s statement is here. Wommers emitted a tweet announcing that he needed a beer, so it must have been hard work in the closing stages.

They have gone for a dual-site solution. Some have suggested that this a political compromise, which could be seen as weak or as eminently sensible, depending on your point of view. Others have worried that a dual site solution will increase cost and complexity. Yet others (eg Pallab Ghosh in a tweet) have suggested that basically the Australians have been thrown a bone, with most of the antennae being located in SA.

I think these are all wrong. Whatever the actual reasoning was behind the decision, the result is that the project will build two complementary telescopes, building on the technology leads already taken by the two hosts. South Africa will build a long-baseline high resolution single pixel type array, aiming at small deep fields. Most of the cosmologists willl love this. Oz will build a lower resolution wide field array, with beam forming and focal plane arrays, aimed at the maximum possible mapping speed for large areas. Well Jeez, that sounds like a good plan. The antennae ? Well, they are all coming from China anyway. (They are building their own low frequency array by the way…)

The only danger is that this arrangement will devolve into two distinct projects, or that one collapses while the other gets the money. But as long as the partners are determined to stick together…

So. Anyhoo. From the SCIENCE point of view, this looks to me like a GOOD PLAN.


SKA site final decision ! Not.

April 4, 2012

So as promised, the SKA Members met today (in Schiphol airport, lucky them) to review the recommendation made by the evaluation committee. You can read the announcement here. The decision is ….. we are going to think about it some more !!!

Just remember, it will be very groovy when it all happens. Two things that knocked me out at NAM, SKA-wise. First, Michael Kraemer, discussing the power requirement for cooling the SKA megacomputers, said that perhaps it doesn’t need its own nuclear power plant after all. Seeing as both potential sites are sunny deserts, what we need is a vast solar power array… and this exactly what these remote areas need anyway, and they can sell power back. So there ya go. Not only did radio astronomy apparently invent wifi, but they are going to save the world too. Hows that for impact.

Knockout fact number two. I went to the session with results from LOFAR, the SKA pathfinder. As you may know, it can act as a cosmic ray telescope, detecting radio waves from the air shower made by a particle hitting the top of the atmosphere. The shower arrives at an angle, so a kind of front moves across the array. LOFAR has nano-second time resolution and each station is a hundred metres across or something like that; so they watch the front move across the array. Holy shit, they can WATCH LIGHT MOVING.


SKA leak

March 11, 2012

Following the earlier teaser, rumours about the SKA site recommendation are leaking out through the press. South Africa has gone into a clear lead. Note careful use of word “recommendation”. An expert committee has made an evaluation on scientific and technical grounds, but the real decision is with the SKA Board, with voting members from China, UK, the Netherlands, and Italy. Firstly, there are quite properly financial, management, and political issues to consider. Secondly, the technical evaluation was apparently quite close. So the fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I guess if you are on your way to the bookies, you will find the Australian odds somewhat lengthened.

The leak appeared first in the Sydney Morning Herald. There is a video interview at that link with somebody called Dan Flitton, who seems to be the channel rather than the source of the leak. Official sources are of course doing the no-comment thing, but nobody seems to have denied Flitton’s statement, and the story has been repeated – in South Africa, in Business Day  and the Mail and Guardian ; on the BBC news site; and in Nature News. The Nature article implies that they have their own source. Its all interestingly different from earlier rumours of a possible merger.

Its now spreading round the usual news re-cyclers and aggregators, with nothing new as far as I can tell. Slashdot has a classic internet style discussion. All sorts of random gibberish, misundertandings, and vileness, with the odd genuine insight sprinkled in, including some suggestions of the technical pros and cons. Take a look if you feel up to holding your nose as you wade past the trolls.

Anyhoo. Board meets April 4th. Albert, JW, you may decline to comment of course.

À suivre, as our French chums say.


SKA Teaser

February 19, 2012

Meanwhile, ground based astronomy continues. US chums pointed me at the NSF budget request. Of course this has to get through the House and the Senate, but so far astronomy seems to be holding its own, and LSST is proposed for a modest boost this year – $7.5M development, up from $4.0M last year. Construction starting in FY2015 still looks like the bet. Of course the scary thing in NSF land is the Portfolio Review . Stuff will close – but what ?

Back here in sunny Manchester, SKA Incorporated, which is of course a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc, is teasing us.  The Big Decision is whether to build the beast in South Africa or Australia. This is a non-trivial economic and political issue, not just a scientific one. Things are hotting up. Like Telescoper, I was recently invited to a “webinar” to help promote the Australian case. (See Peter’s post  on this). I can’t claim to be as principled as Peter – I failed to respond because I was too darned busy. But it did also strike me as unnusual by astro-project standards.

And now, a press release about the site selection ! In the usual manner, I learned about this first from a Tweet by Paul Crowther, which then took me to an STFC announcement which had a link to a statement by the project. A site selection recommendation has been made ! Oh hang on.. its says “recommendation”, not “decision”… A committee has completed the evaluation, but the real decision will be taken by a Meeting of the Members about April-ish. Until then, nobody ain’t saying nuffing. They are just teasing us. Jeez.

I have always been puzzled by engagements. Stay with me. Why don’t people just get married ? But some people even announce when they are going to get engaged. Do they expect even more presents ? Anyway. SKA. Nothing has been built. They haven’t decided where or when they will start building. But they have publicly announced their intention to decide in the near future.

Warning ! Cartoon simplification approaching !

Sixty years ago radio astronomy was way ahead of the curve. Key scientists came out of the war with an understanding of how government actually worked, and the government understood that technology and science went hand in hand, and that academia could be useful. Money flowed.

Twenty years ago radio astronomy was sleepy town. Gentleman amateurs doing the same old science. Drinking tea in their tweed jackets in labs that still looked like they came straight out of Quatermass and the Pit. Lost the knack of making a pitch at PPARC committees etc.

Then somehow they woke up and it all swung round. SKA is a tightly controlled machine.  A couple of years back there was a lively discussion on this blog about future ground based facilities, but nobody was pitching for SKA. At a workshop I was attending, I mentioned this in passing to an SKA type I knew. Ahh, said s/he, this was discussed on a telecon the other day, and it was decided the policy was not to join in the e-Astronomer discussion.  My eyes bulged. It was amazing they even discussed the blog, and even more amazing they had a policy.

That evening, I mentioned this obliquely – without naming any names – in a blog post. The next day Person X told me I’d gotten them into trouble. They knew who it was. Is there some kind of SKA GCHQ ?

Well, probably one shouldn’t attribute too much technological power to SKA. As I write, their web site ain’t working.

By the way, it is a very groovy project. Just wish they chill out.


Something Fresh

December 6, 2011

Almost escaped from teaching. Maybe Ye Olde Blogge can Arise Again. But what, but what, is burning to be said ? Here is a shortlist.

(1) The title is for Professor Smail. First ever Blandings novel. But people have sent me emails saying “we cannot live by Wodehouse alone” so better stop there.

(2) The NOAO consultation has proceeded apace. The latest issue of their newsletter summarises the results  which seem to be that (a) we are relatively cheap really; (b) 4m telescopes will still do some groovy stuff; (c) we need 4m telescopes to train more astronomers. All true, but I can’t see this sort of stuff gripping the likes of Michelle Turner-Overdrive or whatever her name is.

(3) Meanwhile an AURA review into how to run Gemini  recommends it just gets swallered up by NOAO. Luckily the Yookay isn’t involved any more, so there is no need for us to splutter. Leave that to the Canadians.

(4) A new age of optimism dawns ! Wommers jetting around the world making positive noises, kissing people’s hands, and shaking babies. (Shum mishtake ? Ed). THES had an interview  and STFC had its own Hello John  news item. Better than a Dear John letter I suppose. But I drift. No sooner was JW in place than SKA leapt into the future .

(5) Presumably SKA will happen sometime after the lost decade. This economy stuff is a tad depressing what? Watched the Fred Goodwin show on the Beeb last night. Then I noticed that I am in possession of a cheque from ABN Amro, the toxic bank which RBS cleverly bought just before the dam burst. Better cash it quick.

Much of the world of finance seems like vapourware. Credit default swaps ? How did anybody think they were doing anything real ? But the effects are real and scary. Merkel and Sarkozy are proposing, as far as I understand, to make Keynesian economics illegal from now on. Wuh ? Now every day our futures lurch from side to side as “the markets” respond wildly. This is nuts. Like some crazy machine with the feedback loops all wrong. I reckon the economy needs a spot of systems engineering. We need to turn on some damping Cap’n ! Can we get someone from the ATC or RAL to take over ?

All I need now is guest posts expanding the above shortlisted items. Then I can go and do me christmas shoppin.


Riots, Purpose, and Science

August 11, 2011

Back from my hols. Brain getting back in gear. Pouring with rain here in the Burgh. So much grimmer than that nice Cornish drizzle.

So whats happening ? Astronomically not a lot. Courtesy of the inimitable Crowther, there is an interesting analysis of the Australia vs South Africa battle for SKA, from a financial point of view.

Meanwhile, in other news… London’s burning, and Manchester too. Its all a bit depressing, and its tempting to pontificate on The Cause Of It All, but best not to. My opinions are no better than anybody else’s. But listening to the debate did pluck a philosophical nerve…

(A) Some say we have to understand why young people are doing this – they are poor, disenfranchised, bored, etc. (B) Others say – no ! We mustn’t look for excuses, its just selfish and criminal. Now, the citizen in me goes for B, but the scientist in me goes for A. The problem is that people tend to blend the concepts of  reason and excuse. It should be possible to stand outside a system, and say objectively ” ahh.. here are the reasons it happened”, and still be able to go back inside and say “I don’t care why. Has to stop”.

So here is the philosophical tickler. Sometime recently (lost the link..) Hawking provocatively suggested that there is no need for God, because Science is a self-contained explanation of the Universe. It seems to me that big daddies in the sky with beards, or creation myths, or all-pervading spirits or essences, ain’t really the point. What is outside Science, that patently seems to exist, and is an everyday human fact of life, is purpose or intention. In fact for science to work, you more or less have to switch it off, as I sketched above.

Aristotle had causation by purpose (teleology) as one of his four categories of cause. But we modern scientists hold no truck with that. (What is this obsession with holding trucks ?) Does this mean that Science is an incomplete world view ? Or does it in fact suggest that intention is an illusion ? Of course this is standard Philosophy 101 stuff, all tied up with free will vs determinism etc. But whats the gut instinct of the working scientist ?


South African Shakeup

July 19, 2011

While we are getting depressed about JWST, here is some news that can cheer us up. The South African National Research Foundation has announced that it is restructuring its management of astronomy, implementing a “single cluster approach” with “a dedicated, stand-alone unit for the management of facilities and projects”, and that they will start looking for “a suitably qualified and experienced astronomer/physicist to head the Astronomy cluster.” You can find the statement of the NRF board here  and a statement by the Democratic Alliance welcoming this change here. My sources tell me that an announcement has been made to SAAO staff.

The management-speak may be making you glaze over, but permit me to translate. NRF will stop micro-managing astronomy; decisions will be science-led rather than taken for dubious corporate reasons; astronomers will be able to run their own projects; South Africa has become a plausible international partner for the SKA, and greatly improved its chances of winning that prize.

The background, as most of you will remember, was the bizarre suspension of Phil Charles, for reasons never quite specified, but seeming to be insubordination. I wrote several posts about this, starting here and most recently here. Phil was cleared of all the charges… whatever they were… This new announcement goes beyond that exoneration, and effectively vindicates his original actions. Phil is now on the verge of completing his tenure as Director and returning to Southampton. The restructuring makes it plausible that NRF can recruit somebody good to fill his shoes. It must feel very sweet.

Those who like a little schadenfreude stirred into their celebration glass may want to note in the above link the delicately worded announcement that Dr Gatsha Mazithulela will be spending more time with his family.


Decadal bullets

August 14, 2010

So Astro 2010 is on the streets. His Darkness Peter Coles already has an interesting post out in which he makes  two suggestions – first that  the European plan should be deliberately orthogonal to the US plan, and second that we need something similar – a strategic review process that is independent of our funding agency.

It was a fun day for me, as LSST came out so well and I was there at the all hands meeting. Folks were optimistic but uncertain. Project Manager Don Sweeney had a bottle of whisky ready for himself if the news was bad, but as the news was good he quickly got the hotel to rustle up champagne. Later that day I toured the Steward Mirror Lab and saw the LSST blank. It is very weird, having the primary and the tertiary in one block of glass. And this morning that moment was immortalised, as I saw a photo of myself at the Mirror Lab on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star ! But you have to squint. I am third from the left in the line on the ground.

I tweeted the results as they came out in Blandford’s presentation. You can still see the tweets here. I don’t think I am quite ready for a considered analysis – I need time for the dust of a thousand truths to settle on my head – so here are just a few highlight bullets.

  • Space first priority is WFIRST, an IR sky survey mission. Took me by surprise. Seems to be a recast JDEM. An issue for Euclid fans as we thought the JDEM folk would get offered a 20% buy-in to Euclid. Head spinning. This one is fun but scary.
  • LISA beats IXO. Really bad news for X-ray astronomy as a field. At first I thought EXIST would sneak up, but actually it is killed dead. X-ray astronomy needs a really serious re-grouping exercise.
  • Beef up the Explorer program from 40M to 100M per year. Spot on. Fantastic. Start a ground based equivalent of the Explorer program at 40M/yr. Again, fantastic.
  • LSST number one on the ground. What can I say. Except … can we buy into PanSTARRS as well please ? And can we have another go at UK/ESO ? Sorry, somewhat biased here.
  • Choose quickly between TMT and GMT for a 25% federal buy-in. (Both projects are mostly private.). NOAO and Steward folks didn’t like this, and wanted to buy in at half as much to both. Steward Mirror Lab has already started on the GMT mirrors. Saw one being polished.  But its all about doing a deal with ESO, dudes.
  • Buy in to SPICA, ACTA, and CCAT. All excellent choices, but there could have been others too.
  • In the Q&A session, Martha Haynes was asked about SKA, and she said three fascinating things. I paraphrase. One : its really exciting. Two : happening too fast, no money left, sorry. Three : technological readiness questionable. There are some dots you can join there. Please note the above statements are my personal take and not verbatim what Haynes said.

Finally, a point I would make that gels with Peter’s post. When asked why LSST came first, they said “it looks ready to go” and that is correct. But I think the more important point is the groundswell of opinion that they couldn’t ignore. LSST has very extensive “science collaborations” who are working closely with the project, and produced an amazingly comprehensive and convincing Science Book, involving hundreds of scientists. A key point is that those people didn’t just sit on a committee and pontificate about what they would like. They did huge amounts of real work. This makes it unambiguous that they are serious.  The same thing is true for PanSTARRS, but at a smaller level as it is a limited private consortium. The interested scientists did not sit back and wait for things to fall in their lap.


More Phil Charles madness

June 28, 2010

I am sure most of you will remember the recent strange episode in South African astronomy, with SAAO Phil Charles being suspended for … err… well, it was never really clear exactly what he was suspended for. He endured a several day hearing behind closed doors and was publicly cleared. Except that the layer above SAAO, the NRF, said “well, anyway, we still reckon there’s issues, see”. But then the layer above them, the Ministry, said “I think you’ll find we all agree Professor Charles was cleared of all charges”. See my last update.

Now it seems madness is breaking out again. On January 26th SABC reported a partial eclipse, with nice warm quotes from Phil and the Science Minister about how important astronomy is for inspiring youth. However the day before, SABC reported NRF officials as stating darkly that financial irregularities in the running of SALT were being investigated at the request of the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee. Apparently the committee has “received a detailed report” from the NRF.

Now it gets really weird. Yesterday morning (June 29th) a member of that committee (the shadow minister for science) was reported as saying “eh wot pardon ? No such investigation, no such report”.

A little birdie tells me that today there will be a press release from NRF explaining all.


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