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 !

Scariness continued

November 11, 2010

Apologies for radio silence. Somehow I foolishly agreed to teach two new courses simultaneously without noticing the load would peak about the same time as Astronomy Grants Panel Business, and just before finishing a major EU proposal. AAAGGGHHH.

I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there.

Instead, I will alert you to a depressing news article from the New York Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements creep as Nature had reported. The new report seems to confirm this. Management cock-up is the theory of the day.

As Mark also said, cancelling JWST at this stage would be a bad idea. We would not get the money for something else in astronomy instead. Instead, we maybe just have to let the over-runs eat about half the clear blue water that the Decadal Survey identified as available for a nice new Explorer programme etc. Talk about rock and hard place.

But could it happen ? Worryingly, the splashing of over-runs maybe increases the likelihood of cancellation, because the sunk costs are now a smaller fraction of the total… about 1/3, similar to the state of SSC when the plug was pulled in 1993.

I guess we shouldn’t be smug in Europe. Our Big Thing is ELT, for which the currrent level of ESO subscription will cover about a third. Ahh, but … then we get Brazil to join, which is a fair bit more, and then we ask everybody to just ever so slightly increase their subscriptions, and then … umm… then… national agencies pay for more stuff inside their own countries, and then… err… good lord, is that the time ?

Time share in TMT anyone ?

Ground-based review : going, going ….

October 12, 2009

I guess you have all been poring over the draft report of the Ground Based Facilities Review, trying to decode its somewhat incomprehensible ranking scores, and either getting excited because your horse is in the lead, or fuming because they have obviously misunderstood why your favourite 4m telescope is crucial. You have until the 14th to get your feedback in … Its not perfect, but by and large they have done a pretty good job I think. In case you are too busy to read it, here is the short version :

  • Top priority : Carry on with VLT, ALMA and VISTA please. Thou shalt not touch.
  • ELT and SKA : fantabulous. Lets do …. both !!!!
  • eMERLIN and LOFAR. Well, if SKA is so good, we just have to.
  • Gemini : sorry, squire, down the toilet it is .
  • WHT : look, it doesn’t cost much. Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • UKIRT : maybe somebody else can pay ? Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • LSST : come to think of it, this would be rather nice. I know ! ESO can pay !
  • Liverpool Telescope : sorry, not your turn this time
  • WASP and MROI : well, they are kinda fun.

Sounds like a plan. Trouble is of course SKA is fantasy land for years yet, ESO is bust, and we can’t afford to increase the subscription. System in chaos. Mega-projects implausible. Hmm. All change ! Bring back WHT and UKIRT !

They certainly bought the product from the SKA propaganda machine. Respect. Apparently Jodrell Bank invented wifi shortly after CERN invented the Web. Or something like that. Fantastic. I am much more interested in SKA than I was a year ago, cos I have been working on very faint radio sources, which are v.fascinating. (See this paper if you can be bothered.) Trouble is, its also made me worried that SKA will be completely buggered by source confusion. Help.

Big Kit Vote Trap

August 18, 2009

Just in case you felt bored, here’s another consulation.

(I spotted this while catching up on Paul Crowther’s amazing comprehensive STFC Funding Crisis website. How does he keep it up ? Should we officially declare him a National Treasure ?)

Anyhoo. This one is about the RCUK Large Facilities Roadmap. On the list of “emerging facilities” i.e. “things we might give money to” are four astro things – Cherenkov Telescope Array, Einstein (3G grav waves), ELT, and SKA. Get your vote in. I see that ELT got a pretty good economic impact plug. Is this a good sign ?

However, as John Peacock reminded us recently, it ain’t clear that taking money from the LFCF is a good thing. These capital investments are a loan from the Treasury, which have to be paid back. Allocations to research councils include ear-marked amounts which allow them to pay their current debts back to Treasury spread over some years.  Err… I hear you say … so why give them this money at all, if it just whistles past invisibly ? Why, so Government can boast of what a fantastic large allocation they have been given ! It took us quite some time before we realised how crap STFC’s real allocation was. Well, when I say “we”, I expect Keef and Richard understood this all the time but were too embarassed to explain it.

John’s conclusion was that this is dodgy money and we should steer clear. I’m not sure thats right. Surely now we have learned about this trick we can watch the pea under the cup next time ?

Overheated Telescopes

June 11, 2009

Do we have too many telescopes ?

The STFC Ground Based Facilities Review is now well under way. There is an official GBFR web page, including a link to a well written consultation document, and an online questionnaire (did I spell that right ?)  The deadline for responses is July 31st. There is related “Town Meeting” scheduled for July 9th. (Thanks to Peter for spotting my earlier date screw-up).  The panel expects to publish a draft report by October 2nd; this schedule is designed to allow some chance of interaction with the US decadal survey.

Back in the 1990s I was on a PPARC review panel called the Ground Based Telescopes Development Panel (GBTDP).  Everybody referred to it as the  Ground Based Telescopes Destruction Panel. This time round the gloomy talk says the answer is already written : pull out of Gemini, close everything else except ESO membership, and pick ONE of ELT or SKA. Is that too pessimistic ? Is it in fact the right thing to do ? (See also Sarah’s post)

For sure, money is short and prospects poor. On top of STFC’s dodgy CLRC inheritance, we have a dodgy economy, subscriptions fixed in Euros with a falling pound, Research Councils faced with “efficiency savings”, a new Science Minister rumoured to be unconvinced by astronomy, and dark rumours of other problems.  Furthermore, as the consultation document says upfront, there is no doubt we have a somewhat “overheated” ground based programme, for understandable historical reasons. Something has to go or we will look foolish as well as greedy. But it would be equally foolish to swing right through to the doom scenario where we have only ESO and ELT.

After reading the GBFR document, I felt the urge to boil down some of the figures to get the big picture. So here are some bottom line round figures in size order. These are rough ten year costs, even though some things might not have ten year lifetimes. The idea is just for very rough comparison. I have mixed up existing things, current requests, and likely future requests, and have used todays exchange rates.

  • ESO incl ALMA : £212M
  • ELT-UK  £110M
  • SKA-UK : £82M
  • Gemini incl Oxford office : £60M
  • eMERLIN : £24M (could reduce)
  • 90% of UKIRT : £20M
  • LSST-UK (guesstimate to 2020) £20M
  • 55% of JCMT : £14M
  • 33% of WHT+INT : £10M
  • 40% of Liverpool Telescope : £5M
  • SuperWASP :  £4M
  • 8% of Magdalena Ridge : £3M
  • ALMA Reg. Centre : £3M
  • Dark Energy Survey (DES) £2M
  • LOFAR ops share £2M
  • JIVE £1M

Note that the fractions are open public fractions – eg Iain Steele (see comment below after my original version) notes that most of the rest of LT is still for UK astronomers.

One way to group these numbers is :

  • ESO+Gemini=260
  • new big-tickets=210
  • 4m-era legacy = 67
  • small beer = 30

So the legacy+smalls represent 17% of the total. My guess is that they represent very good value for money … but they are our only margin.