Farewell UKIRT

May 31, 2012

A short but sad post. After yet another review, STFC has finally bitten the bullet and decided to close both JCMT (at the end of 2014) and UKIRT (in September 2013). Not a big surprise, but very very sad. La Palma is extended to 2015 with hope of extended negotiations with partners. The STFC announcement is here. I understand there will be an RAS reaction today.

The timing twists the knife. Today we start the fourth Science from UKIDSS workshop, and UKIRT just announced record-breaking productivity.The last UKIDSS observing was about a week or so back. For the final year, UKIRT will carry out a large area J-band survey, the first section of the hoped-for UKIRT Hemisphere survey. The final UKIDSS data release won’t be too long now, but I am expecting it will produce science for years to come – 338 UKIDSS related publications so far, and the rate is still speeding up.

Of course, WFCAM is just the last in a long line of stunning UKIRT instruments. Catch me in the pub and you will get my UKT9, CGS4, and IRCAM stories.

My grateful thanks to dozens of UKIRT and JCMT over the last thirty years, but especially to the gang who are still there now making my science possible – Gary, Tom, Watson, Jack, Thor et al.

I have this feeling that our workshop dinner tonight may be even more sozzled than we expected.


A billion stars

March 29, 2012

Funny old day yesterday at NAM2012. I gave an emergency talk (filling in for a cancellation), picked up my share of the RAS Group Award for UKIDSS, sloped off to the pub with co-conspirators Nige Hambly, Mike Irwin, and Steve Warren, and then went to the RAS Dining Club for only the second time ever, at the Midland Hotel, where apparently Rolls met Royce.

Today is another fun day, especially for WFAU chum Nick Cross, who is giving a talk today announcing the public release of VISTA data.To make this a bit more fun, WFAU wizard Mike Read stitched together UKIDSS GPS data and VISTA VVV data in the Galactic Plane to make a zooomable mega image containing a billion stars. There is a press release here , Nick is on the Beeb here, and you can play with the zoomi-map thingy here. See if you can spot the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster.  When you are ready for a spot of serious science however, do a few SQL warm up exercises and then zip off to the actual VISTA Science Archive.

Update : nice plug on BBC News web site  which for a while was the No.1 most-read … and is still number 3 !


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.


UKIRT output : best ever

March 17, 2011

Just had a fun day in Milton Keynes. No, really. I have been here today giving a seminar but also had some very interesting chats, and got a tour of the Planetary Sciences Research Institute, where they have lots of fun kit. I must admit I was a bit perturbed when Simon Green showed me a historical piece of equipment in a glass case and said that it had Colin Pillinger’s lip marks all over it. He then explained that he meant that Colin had blown the glass tubes himself.

Anyhoo, got back to my hotel to find a most marvelous email from Gary Davis, Director of JAC. It seems that UKIRT, that ancient useless telescope that clearly we should have closed by now, produced more papers last year than ever before. Check it out here.

Hem. Just a tad to do with UKIDSS of course…


Stay of Execution Part II

June 7, 2010

These days we have to be grateful for partial victories. You will all remember the pre-Xmas pain of finally hearing the results of the STFC prioritisation review. This included the half-expected but grim news that there would be a “managed withdrawal” from UKIRT. Over the following weeks this got worse, as we discovered that this meant shutting down UKIRT by the end of this year, 2010.  The announcement hit my own scientific ambitions, as it would mean UKIDSS would not get finished as originally intended. It was also grim timing, so soon after the workshop celebrating 30 years of UKIRT. And, as I wrote during my last UKIRT run, UKIRT has gradually evolved into the most efficient telescope I know.

However, the UKIRT leadership evolved a cunning plan. UKIRT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC), sharing much support with the JCMT, which is guaranteed to stay open to mid-2012. If UKIRT closes, the operating cost of JCMT would actually go up somewhat. So a new “bare bones” model was developed in which the cost of running both telescopes would be pretty much the same as running JCMT by itself. I have been aware of this behind the scenes for a while, but I am very pleased to see that it has been officially approved by STFC and by the UKIRT Board, and was announced yesterday on the UKIRT website.

The general idea is that the TSS runs UKIRT from sea level, there are no visiting observers, and there is heavily reduced tech support. UKIRT Head Andy Adamson has already moved to Gemini, but luckily the equally trusty Tom Kerr is taking over. You can read more about minimalist mode at Tom’s blog, A Pacific View, which regularly has the most stunning pictures.

The good news is that UKIDSS will finish, and UKIRT stays open, and presumably continues to welcome possible partners. The bad news is that this means real cuts, and there will be real redundancies, over and above the voluntary ship jumping and person shuffling – something lke thirteen posts I believe.


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.


VISTA is Go

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.


Euroscope vote : last chance

August 27, 2009

Finished that input to the Large Facilities Review ? OK. Next. Insert your penny’s worth into the European Telescope Strategy Review. This is part of the whole Astronet Roadmap for European Astronomy thing. This particular exercise is about the future of our 2-4m class telescopes.  In the era of 8m telescopes, with ELT on the horizon, and money getting tighter, what should we do with these older telescopes ? Keep ’em going ? Bin them ? Re-purpose them ? Or a bit of all three ? (As PI of UKIDSS, you can probably guess my answer… keep UKIRT going !!)

This is one that every academic and postdoc can make a difference to I think. The panel really want to know what the community thinks, and the input requested is free-form comment rather than another one of those “do you think a, b, or c ?” type questionnaires.

But time is nearly up ! Deadline 31st August. Thats Monday ….

ps UKIDSS just passed the 100 papers mark…


Big Island Bloggers

April 19, 2009

The skies are clearing on Mauna Kea … I am getting some good data on UKIDSS at last. While those twenty minute queued observations are trundling along, I have been catching up on local blogs. There are quite a few blogs on the Big Island, but I have found three astro blogs. The first is A Pacific View which is already in my More Astro Blog Links page. The second is A Darker View .  The third  is Adventures in a lightroom . His pseudonym is Mirmilant, but I think this is another UKIRT staffer, Antonio Chrysostomou. All of these blogs have great photos, but Mirmilant’s are absolutely stunning, and he has another web site with a gallery of photos. Check it out. Jeez, I wish I could do that.

Is there something in the Hawaiian water that turns people into photographers ?


Stars on Hollywood and Vine

October 13, 2008

Spent the last few days at Caltech, selling my wares – a colloquium that covered both UKIDSS science highlights and and AstroGrid tools, another talk on why I don’t believe in donuts, and various bits of VO technicalia for my  CACR chums. The UKIDSS-VO update can be found here, but you don’t get the full flavour as you miss my live demo. People seemed impressed that someone over thirty-five could type SQL in real time into a box, so I was mildly chuffed.

Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure – will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard ?

The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom. Its very hard to believe now. The whole area is so run down, tacky, decayed, and even boarded up. Further along Hollywood Boulevard it eventually smartens up, but even the famous Chinese Theatre with the handprints of the stars seems small and tawdry. Can this really be the source, the spring, of our twentieth century dreams ?

Hitting success in astrophysics is at least a mixture of talent and luck. Hitting the big time in the dream factory was almost all luck, because talent was oversupplied. And yet … the great movie actors – Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant would be my list – seem so magical, surely their destiny was manifest ?