Specially for Tim

October 9, 2013

I have been putting on the nosebag tonight. The ESO Committee of Council is here in Edinburgh; the first time we have hosted it for ten years I believe. Anyhoo, I am not on said august body, but as a local astro-big-wig was invited to the nosh. All the chat was about ELT and Brazil of course. Much optimism. Honest. Also a bit of Higgsteria spin-off with Wommers and Jim The Dunlop later in the pub. (The Bow Bar. Some of my readers will know it well.)

Anyhoo, found myself chatting to the Danish rep on the government side. Very cogent woman called Cecilie Tonroe. I think. I was probing her about Danish astronony when Tim De Zeeuw leaned over and said “careful what you say to this man, Cecilie, he has a blog and anything interesting will appear there”.

Anyway. The entire point of this post is to prove Tim right.

Except of course you don’t know what I am not telling you.

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 !

Cosmic Convergence

January 5, 2012

I have a cute diagram for you. But first, as Frankie Howerd would say, The Prologue. Some background is necessary in case you get the wrong take-home message once I unveil the interestin’ picture…

Periodically somebody frightens us with tales of how The Data Deluge Threatens Science. (Yes, guilty.) Cynics will suggest that Moore’s law runs even faster, so computers will always be good enough – whats the problem? Actually, I think the interesting things are those that are not improving exponentially – last mile bandwidth, disk I/O speed, and human resource. The first two are a bit of a bummer for individuals, but fixable if you are a pro data centre – tune your TCP buffers, open multiple channels, hang thirty discs off your motherboard, etc. So this drives us to a service architecture. But so does the third thing : people effort. Developing interfaces to the data, and curating it as it comes in, takes work. A lot of this scales per archive rather than per bit. The real problem, and why we need the VO, is the number of archives not the number of bits. Its a Tower of Babel thing.

Enough of the VO lecture. The size of each major astronomical archive certainly is growing fast. But so is the size of a typical hard drive. As part of some work with Bob Mann and and Mark Holliman, I was collecting some data on these things, when suddenly it occurred to me not just to talk in general terms but to actually plot one on top of the other. Exhibit A therefore shows (i) the evolution of the size of PC disks, from the wikimedia commons page here , and (ii) the total size of the ESO Science Archive, divided by 200 – data kindly provided by Paolo Padovani. The step function in 1999 is real – its when the VLT switched on. Otherwise, they track each beautifully. Over two decades, while volumes have increased by factors of tens of thousands, the number of PC drives needed to hold the ESO data has stayed the same within a factor of two.

I guess both of these things, like a number of others, are loosely driven by a combination of integrated circuit technology and economics. But the fact that they are so close seems surprising. Maybe there is some kind of weird technology central limit theorem thing going on.

Comparison of growth of ESO archive with hard drive capacity. Dik data used under GPL.

Astronomical Isolation

December 14, 2011

So what will the euro-zone veto fuss do to astronomy ? Anything ?

I have just been checking for new service data on a ESO-VLT project I have. My student is doing stuff with ESA Herschel data. Lots of us are glowing happily and emailing our Italian and French friends because Euclid got selected. I just submitted another Euro-VO FP7 proposal with a variety of European chums. At project meetings, being “Europe” as opposed to “the UK” is often crucial. The Americans take us much more seriously. Hey, we are all European astronomers now. Aren’t we ?

Joining ESO was a difficult debate in the UK. Many UK astronomers have always felt more comfortable with our US and Australian friends. They speak our language (more or less), and have a kind of rugged and ambitious approach that we like. On the other hand, our French and Italian friends sometimes seem more, you know, sophisticated. In other words we are typical Brits. We can’t decide if we are cultured Europeans or part of some grand Brittanic gung ho civilisation. Even as I write, my instincts are mostly with ESO and ESA, but I am also part of a lobby thats just dying to be part of LSST.

Right now, European politicians and newspapers seem to be saying “thank goodness ! We never liked them anyway !” Are our European astronomy chums secretly irritated with us all this time ? I should point out that neither ESO nor ESA are anything to do with the EU. They are independent treaty organisations. Nothing structural or automatic ensues from the Eurozone situation. But it does make you wonder what they think of us..

Redshift Seven

June 29, 2011

I am very happy today to report a triumph for UKIDSS, for Dan Mortlock and Steve Warren, and for UKIRT  : the first quasar to break the redshift seven barrier. You can read the Mortlock et al Nature paper, the STFC story, the Gemini version, or the ESO version. And Telescoper has already splashed it too ! The science is best in the Gemini version, but the ESO has wonderfully gaudy animations….

When we were designing UKIDSS back in 1998-2001, SDSS was doing its thing and the redshift record climbed from 5ish to 6.3. The secret was finding i-band dropouts, as the famous forest cuts out nearly all light shortward of Lyman alpha. However this can’t work past z=6.4 as you get no visible light at all. Bring on the massive IR survey please… This was Steve Warren’s big push, along with the importance of the new Y-band, so we could tell the difference between high-z quasars and T-dwarfs. Finding these swines though is the classic needle in a haystack problem, with millions of fake candidates to weed out. Dan Mortlock has worked long hard and patiently, along with Steve Warren, Bram Venemans, Richard McMahon and others. Team UKIDSS were starting to get worried, as we were succesfully finding more 6ish quasars, but nothing past the magic 6.4… then suddenly bang – redshift 7.085.

Apart from breaking records, the new quasar is important in two ways. First, the Ly-alpha line is eaten away even redward of the peak, implying a small “near-zone” size, and so the best evidence so far for a significant neutral fraction near the quasar. Second, it has an estimated mass of two billion solar masses at just 770 million years after the Big Bang. It is generally thought that the very first stars, and so the first seed black holes, won’t be there until about z=25; then any such seed should not be able to grow by accretion to two billion solar masses until at least 900 million years…

Quasar near-zone

Artists impression of ionised bubble formed around quasar ULASJ1120+0641

Anyhoo. Although ESO and Gemini are getting lots of excellent PR, I think this is a triumph for UKIRT . Not dead yet, squire. In fact, how do we get more of these beasties, and push on to redshift 8 ? Survey the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, thats how. Another four years will do. (OK, VISTA helps too…).

Other thoughts. The Infra-red is cool. Big public surveys work. And for such massive surveys, properly processed and archived data is crucial. The whole thing would have been impossible without the selfless work of the teams at CASU and WFAU. Thank you guys.

Get your own data at the WSA ! DR9 coming your way soon.

Three scary stories

October 28, 2010

Comments are still dribbling along on my previous post, but drifting somewhat. Folks are determined to talk about ESO. Meanwhile I have been writing lecture notes and going to a workshop on sky survey data management. So here is a brief restart.

Just as we thought the groves of academe had gotten off lightly, we start to learn the awful truth. Following the Twitter trail yesterday (where would I be without Paul Crowther ?) led to three scary stories.

Scary story number one : teaching budget timing. A few days back that nice Mr Clegg told us he still had some principles and wouldn’t allow infinite fees, just much bigger fees. We should probably should have guessed something because the announced cut was 40% not 80%. But now it seems the cuts will come in before universities are allowed to raise their fees, leading to a temporary but huge shortfall. Only places with big reserves will survive. Of course this makes the “err… what will happen in Scotland ?” question even more complicated than ever.

Scary story number two. Spiralling JWST costs. Nature News call JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy”. Don’t hold your breath for that exciting new WFIRST. Maybe 2022 if you are lucky. One of the odd things is that the graph in that article seems to show the US astrophysics budget rising to a massive peak during the Bush years. Shome mishtake shurely ? I showed this to some Arizona colleagues last night and they were mystified.

Scary story number three. Capital problems. So “we” only get cut 10%. But…. MRC seem to be promised flat funding in real terms, and thats a big slice. And…. capital budgets will fall by 44%. But…. the new medical centre thingy and Diamond upgrade will go ahead, so even less left. And…. subscriptions come partly out of capital budgets. Its worth quoting Nature here :

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.


Place your bets

October 18, 2010

Hundreds of people just read my post on plotter script packages, but there has only been one comment. I conclude that even software fans are too busy fretting over the coming cuts. The newspapers, Twitter, and departmental coffee rooms are are swimming in gossip, angst, and bitterness. Peter Coles has captured the mood in his latest post, including a long embedded analysis from the ever reliable Paul Crowther.

To be honest, the guts of what Peter and Paul (where’s Mary ?) have said in that post is what we have known for some time. Because STFC has 80% fixed costs, and even more hard-to-back-off projects, a cut of 25% is physically impossible without something drastic being done. This either means STFC will be let off, or something drastic has to be done. Even the rumoured 15% cut leaves more or less the same conclusion. We will be left with a statue of Keith Mason and nowt else. All around the lone and level sands stretch far away. Nothing beside remains.

Yesterday in the Twittersphere there was some brief optimism – people took Osborne’s statement on Diamond  as a sign of support for Science. My immediate reaction was the opposite. He was setting up a rebuttal – “but look, I am investing extra in Science”. The £69M concerned is what was almost certainly earmarked in the Large Facilities Capital Fund anwyay, and will of course have to be paid back to the Treasury later, for which in the next round, some non-cash will again be announced as “more investment in science”.

Now actually of course we probably still won’t know the answer by the end of the week, as the implications will take a while to cascade through BIS and RCUK….

I am so depressed, all I can think is to make a game  of it. Place your bets.


December 11, 2009

VISTA, our shiny new IR survey telescope, is ready for rock and roll. Check out the ESO press release . There some lervely pictures, including a zoomable mosaic of the Galactic Centre.

I am excited (and relieved) both scientifically and in project terms. Data is being processed by a combined Cambridge-Edinburgh team. The data will be deposited in the ESO archive, but also of course will be available in a flexible queryable interface pretty similar to what we already do for UKIDSS at the WFCAM Science Archive (WSA). (The VSA is ready but I am not sure I am allowed to show it to you yet…) Enjoy.

Next up : WISE. This is a spacecraft that will survey the sky in the mid-IR, nicely complementing UKIDSS and VISTA. It is due for launch on Monday from Vandenberg. Gad, the IR is getting exciting.

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.

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.