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 !


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.


Decadal bullets

August 14, 2010

So Astro 2010 is on the streets. His Darkness Peter Coles already has an interesting post out in which he makes  two suggestions – first that  the European plan should be deliberately orthogonal to the US plan, and second that we need something similar – a strategic review process that is independent of our funding agency.

It was a fun day for me, as LSST came out so well and I was there at the all hands meeting. Folks were optimistic but uncertain. Project Manager Don Sweeney had a bottle of whisky ready for himself if the news was bad, but as the news was good he quickly got the hotel to rustle up champagne. Later that day I toured the Steward Mirror Lab and saw the LSST blank. It is very weird, having the primary and the tertiary in one block of glass. And this morning that moment was immortalised, as I saw a photo of myself at the Mirror Lab on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star ! But you have to squint. I am third from the left in the line on the ground.

I tweeted the results as they came out in Blandford’s presentation. You can still see the tweets here. I don’t think I am quite ready for a considered analysis – I need time for the dust of a thousand truths to settle on my head – so here are just a few highlight bullets.

  • Space first priority is WFIRST, an IR sky survey mission. Took me by surprise. Seems to be a recast JDEM. An issue for Euclid fans as we thought the JDEM folk would get offered a 20% buy-in to Euclid. Head spinning. This one is fun but scary.
  • LISA beats IXO. Really bad news for X-ray astronomy as a field. At first I thought EXIST would sneak up, but actually it is killed dead. X-ray astronomy needs a really serious re-grouping exercise.
  • Beef up the Explorer program from 40M to 100M per year. Spot on. Fantastic. Start a ground based equivalent of the Explorer program at 40M/yr. Again, fantastic.
  • LSST number one on the ground. What can I say. Except … can we buy into PanSTARRS as well please ? And can we have another go at UK/ESO ? Sorry, somewhat biased here.
  • Choose quickly between TMT and GMT for a 25% federal buy-in. (Both projects are mostly private.). NOAO and Steward folks didn’t like this, and wanted to buy in at half as much to both. Steward Mirror Lab has already started on the GMT mirrors. Saw one being polished.  But its all about doing a deal with ESO, dudes.
  • Buy in to SPICA, ACTA, and CCAT. All excellent choices, but there could have been others too.
  • In the Q&A session, Martha Haynes was asked about SKA, and she said three fascinating things. I paraphrase. One : its really exciting. Two : happening too fast, no money left, sorry. Three : technological readiness questionable. There are some dots you can join there. Please note the above statements are my personal take and not verbatim what Haynes said.

Finally, a point I would make that gels with Peter’s post. When asked why LSST came first, they said “it looks ready to go” and that is correct. But I think the more important point is the groundswell of opinion that they couldn’t ignore. LSST has very extensive “science collaborations” who are working closely with the project, and produced an amazingly comprehensive and convincing Science Book, involving hundreds of scientists. A key point is that those people didn’t just sit on a committee and pontificate about what they would like. They did huge amounts of real work. This makes it unambiguous that they are serious.  The same thing is true for PanSTARRS, but at a smaller level as it is a limited private consortium. The interested scientists did not sit back and wait for things to fall in their lap.