The sounds of youth

February 13, 2010

I do miss the Mellotron. It was the sound of my youth. I resumed my acquaintance on a flight from the UK to Hawaii for my latest observing run by listening to ancient King Crimson. With those synthesised strings a band could sound radical and modern and gushingly sentimental at the same time.

I was expecting more gushing sentiment in Hawaii. I am here to push on with UKIDSS, our infra-red sky survey, which will take a thousand nights at fourteen thousand feet. Except that now it might not finish … as UKIRT‘s closing date has been set by STFC as Dec 31st this year. So this might be my last ever UKIRT run…

So I was expecting the local staff to be wallowing in gloom, bitterness, and weepy nostalgia. What I found was a kind of resigned pragmatism. Senior staff are putting on their salesman hats and looking for buyers; junior staff are just getting on with their jobs.  And of course they are all brushing off their CVs. But there was no ranting or choking back tears.

I did get my nostalgia fix tonight though. Tom Geballe, who is currently on a staff astronomer run at Gemini, dropped in to UKIRT with his son and other visitors. Tom used to work at UKIRT many moons ago, and was touched to find CGS4 still bolted on to its Cassegrain station. He patted it gently. His son too found his head thrown back in time. The sound of his youth, he said, was the CGS4 closed cycle coolers.

But now the future is upon us ! VISTA works. See lovely new Orion picture. Last night I looked at the Orion nebula with my binoculars. Its nice to be reminded every now and again that what we do is real. It ain’t just a TV game.

WISE is Go

December 15, 2009

Its the year of infra-red astronomy … UKIRT is still going strong (for now…), but now we have Herschel, VISTA, and … WISE.

WISE launched successfully yesterday from Vandenberg. The PV phase is expected to be very short – an amazing one month – followed by a seven month sky survey. My IPAC chums tell me they intend to get the data within a year, so you ain’t got to wait long.

Just thought I’d cheer you up before tomorrow’s doom and gloom.


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.

UKIRT and Star Wars

September 14, 2009

Todays lessons : (i) never understimate the public appeal of astronomy, and (ii) stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

I am sitting in a fascinating but sentimental workshop : UKIRT at 30, a celebration of thirty years of ground-breaking infrared astronomy at the UK Infrared Telescope. It is pretty amazing how UKIRT got proposed as a very cheap and simple light bucket, but in fact has stayed ahead of the game in technical innovation and scientific impact at every step.

The classic era for some was the revolutionary application of infrared imaging arrays – the famous IRCAM. Ian MacLean’s description of the history had some interesting insights. He showed a blow-up of the first array in the lab at ROE, and there, etched along the bottom in tiny letters was the word “tankbreaker”. This is what you get when you inherit military technology …

Ian heard rumours of a group in a US university that had an IR arrray to play with and went to see them. They wouldn’t say who they got it from, but Ian convinced them to let who-ever-it-was know that ROE was interested in getting a working camera on a real working telescope. They did. This, we now know, was Al Hoffman at SBRC (now Raytheon). Al in fact convinced his management to start a new program of commercial array development specifically for astronomy. Apparently he skipped his boss and went straight to one of the VPs. Why ? Because he knew that guy was a keen amateur astronomer …

SBRC and UKIRT/ROE entered into a formal partnership. It is very unnusual for a US commercial corporation to enter such a partnership with a non-US non-commercial entity. This sounds like just the sort of Knowledge Transfer success that the powers-that-be are urging us to achieve today. But hang on – note which direction the Knowledge is Transferring…. Did we invent some great new technology, which industry gratefully devoured ? Don’t be silly. They were the dog, and we were the flea. Partnership is the word. As customers we helped them develop a new market.

Same story with Adapative Optics. Probably same story developing now with ginormous databases.

UKIDSS world release

January 10, 2008


As I warned just before Xmas in this post, the first world release of UKIDSS has now gone public, with a press release at the AAS. The blogosphere is picking it up, here, here and here. You have no idea how nice it feels after a couple of weeks of STFC-cuts politics.. This has been my baby since 1998 … but others have done much more work than me. Thanks especially Steve Warren, Nige Hambly, and Mike Irwin. Steve doesn’t seem to have a home page. This isn’t him.

Key links : explanations at the UKIDSS web site; data access at the WFCAM Science Archive; and Mike Read’s groovy pannable Milky Way.

Explore the infrared sky

December 21, 2007


Most of this week I was actually doing some science for a change, at a workshop in ESO with all my UKIDSS chums. We just issued our third data release, which with exquisite taste we have called DR3. UKIDSS is now the biggest Infrared Sky Survey ever made, in terms of database size, number of objects, and effective volume (but not sky area). DR3 is announced on the UKIDSS web site, and you can get the data at the WFCAM Science Archive (WSA). Or at least you can if you are European.. but also DR1 is about to go world public, so all the Americans can get at it. This will be announced at the upcoming AAS meeting.

Mostly the WSA is for serious pro work, not for public consumption of pretty pix. However, our secret weapon Mike Read has knocked up a lovely pannable zoomable mosaic of the Galactic Plane Survey. Its still kinda patchy, but full of gorgeous things. Try it out.