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 !


All systems JUICE

May 2, 2012

So the SPC has done its thing. Vast petitions and stern letters nothwithstanding, they have chosen JUICE and its all systems go for launch in 2022. Jupiter here we come. The official announcement is here. There’s some coverage already at the Beeb, and at Skymania. Always quick off the mark that Suthers. Andrew Coates and Michelle Dougherty do a splendid job on the embedded video at the Beeb article and wax lyrical about Life Under The Ice. Who wouldn’t want to check that out ?

There is also an article at Physics World including quotes from yours truly. You will note I have been nice about everybody. Except NASA of course.

So thats it for now. X-rated astronomers and gravy fans have a year to gird their loins. Who wants to open a book ?


Memory and Theft

April 29, 2012

Sunday. Trying to work up the enthusiasm to write another post about the Juicy Athena Gravy story, but not quite sure how to do it without consulting lawyers first. Apparently if you speak Italian this article is significant. I don’t know what to make of it, but coffee room gossip is that Private Eye would.

So I finished the book I was reading instead – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Beautiful but very sad. Gets very mixed reviews I see but I was gripped. It has a science fiction setting but is really about love, the difficulty of expressing what you feel, and how you cope with the inevitability of loss.

So next I tried ironing and music, always a combination that perks me up, as the mindlessness of ironing allows channels to open that the busy mind will often block. I picked “Mellow Gold” by Beck. Mostly I associate Beck with a kind of punk nihilism, but sometimes he is hypnotically surreal. My favourite is “Steal My Body Home”. I really don’t quite know what its about, but like the Ishiguro book, it reeks of emotional dissociation. I refrain from pointing out the grimmer more accidental link.


Turbulence in the gravy waves

April 23, 2012

So the Athena folk are somewhat miffed at being pipped by Juice. (This metaphor doesn’t seem quite right ? Ed.) But what about Horse Number Three ? Aren’t the NGO folk doing a Grand Petition ? Nope. It seems their tactic is a semi-formal complaint about inadeqacies in the process : an email letter direct to Gimenez. I am not sure how widely it has been circulated, but I understand it is stern stuff, bringing up issues of inappropriate revisions of costings and risk factors, and inadequately resolved conflicts of interest. Feel free to comment if you have clear knowledge, but please (a) do not leak things that are confidential, and (b) keep coments about process and not about individuals.

Its not really clear what competition means when a very small number of items is under consideration, and moreoever each item represents one community-segment, each of which ESA wishes to foster and support. Can you really leave it to peer review and some element of chance ? Nobody is both competent and neutral with respect to such huge basic choices. Why not accept that a well meaning Executive just has to  make a plan and stick with it, after taking advice ? To some extent what makes the current situation hard to swallow is the illusion of choice by peer review, rather than its weaknesses.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Long standing ESA tradition is that M-class missions are genuine choices but Cornerstones / L-class missions are a slowly emerging plan. Everything gets done; its just a question of when. A year or two back, the plan was clear : we could do three halves, shared with NASA : LAPLACE, LISA, IXO. Then NASA pulled out of all of them. So now we have enough money for one and a half L-class missions instead of three. Athena, NGO, and Juice are all somewhat descoped compared to their parents. For example, ESA was going to do Ganymede and NASA would do Europa. But apparently Europa is the expensive bit because it has a horrible radiation field. So Juice will do a kind of quick day trip to Europa as I understand it, scooting back before the electronics gets fried. Anyhoo, costs are down but we still can’t do three.

We can do the usual ESA trick of slowing things down. Step round the board for a few more subscription rounds, passing GO and collecting 200 pounds each time. However, this gets you less than you think : because of standing army issues, the costs go up too. Plus, we can’t wait for ever. Its time for Cosmic Visions to finish and the next plan to emerge.

Net result : there will be an L2 competition, but no L3 competition. Things could get even tenser … NGO may seem the obvious choice to ESA because they have already invested in LISA Pathfinder, and its just a more radical advance. Thats why I think it has been really important to show that Athena serves a huge community.


X-ray astronomy crunch

April 19, 2012

I got an email this morning from old chum Paul Nandra. You may not be surprised because about eight squillion of you got the same email. In fact I also got it yesterday from Andy Fabian, and also via the Euclid mailing list (followed by a knuckle rapping from Yannick reminding us that the Euclid mailing list is for Euclid business…)

The email asked us to sign the Athena petition set up by Paul, who these days is King of German X-ray Astronomy, following Gunther’s retirement to Hawaii. Athena is a giant X-ray telescope, and has been on the shortlist of three for the L-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme for some years. It descends from IXO, but our US chums pulled the plug on that. The other two rivals are NGO (which used to be LISA, and is  gravy wave thing) and JUICE (which used to be Laplace, and is a Jupiter moon thing). As explained in this BBC article, the tortuous decision process is almost done : the Space Science Advisory Committee has recommended JUICE. The fat lady in this case is the Science Policy Committee, so there is still a chance the decision could be reversed. Hence the petition.

The response has been pretty impressive – over 1100 signatures already. I think people see this as an issue for astrophysics, as well as specifically for X-ray astronomy. However, it seems a pretty faint hope. It just ain’t the way ESA thinks; Gaia is about to get launched; and Euclid and Solar Orbiter have just been selected as M-class missions. ESA-think is that it must be the turn of planetary astronomy. Furthermore SPICA (joint IR mission with JAXA) is underway, and LOFT (another X-ray concept) is still in contention for another M-class mission.

Still… the point is that Athena is the Big Hope for X-ray astronomy for many many years to come. Not running with it feels like closing down X-ray astronomy. So at minimum, it seems the right thing to do to register one’s distress.

Personally I would rather go for a smaller monitoring / transient projects like Lobster or EXIST but they seem to have failed to get a foot in the door too.

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.