New instruments, amazing new data

In the past couple of years ESO have gradually commissioning a new generation of instruments at Paranal. The newcomers at VLT are KMOS, MUSE and most recently SPHERE. One by one, these instrument are providing better sensitivity, higher resolution, and improved efficiency through multi-object and/or integral field spectroscopy. Some of the science verification data have been spectacular.

Here’s the Orion nebula imaged by MUSE. This is a colour composite, as if it were simply imaged in a few different filters. But MUSE is a spectrograph, so it gives us full spectral information at each position. It’s a hugely rich dataset. Click the image for ESO webpage with more info and bigger sizes.

Image: ESO/MUSE consortium/R. Bacon

Image: ESO/MUSE consortium/R. Bacon

This week the ESO Messenger contained an article on the Science Verification results from SPHERE, a spectro-polarimeter that uses extreme adaptive optics to achieve high contrast levels – perfect for studying environments around stars, in particular exoplanets. SPHERE is quite a complex instrument with a number of different imaging, spectroscopic, polarimetric and coronagraphic modes (and combinations thereof); it’s definitely one of the most challenging AO systems ever developed. The images are really stunning.

Check out these images of the evolved star VY CMa:

L: Near-IR image of VY CMa over an 11x11" field of view. R: close-in view with the optical polarimetric mode (Leibundgut et al 2015)

L: Near-IR image of VY CMa over an 11×11″ field of view. R: close-in view with the optical polarimetric mode (Leibundgut et al 2015)

And I’m sure there is much more to come from these exciting new facilities.

Just a couple of weeks ago I gave a lecture about the importance of technology in astronomy. There’s no better way to prove this point than with these new images.







Don’t Look at the Sun

Tomorrow morning we’ll be treated to the rare sight of a near-total solar eclipse. I hope so at least; the weather forecast is looking a bit dicey at the moment. Still, I plan to be outside between 8 and 10 am to catch a glimpse of the Moon sliding across the face of the Sun. It’s a spectacular sight.

The BBC Stargazing Live extravaganza has this year been timed to coincide with the eclipse, so every evening for the next few days you can watch Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain (and some of my Oxford colleagues too!) on BBC2. Lots of events will be taking place all over the country as well so check out the events listing to see what’s on where you are.

The Oxford astrophysicists will be setting up shop, and some solar telescopes, outside the Said Business School near the railway station from 08:00. If you’re in the area, come and hang out with us. There will be live coverage of the event throughout the morning on BBC Oxford radio with one of my fellow postdocs, Jo Barstow, in the studio as expert.

It’s been a bit sad to hear how many schools will not be taking their students outside to watch the eclipse because of safety fears. It’s true, looking at the Sun directly can seriously damage your eyesight, and maybe at some ages kids can’t quite grasp how serious that is. Still, we teach kids about traffic safety and how not to hurt themselves on playgrounds; I’d hope that the danger of looking directly into the Sun is something we can reasonably convey. Eclipses really are very spectacular, and the opportunity to see a near-total (or total) eclipse doesn’t come along very often in a lifetime.

There are lots of safe ways to see the solar eclipse, some of which are fun and creative, like making your own pinhole camera to project the disk of the Sun. Or you can just use a colander!

The BBC have made a handy guide  with Lucie Green about safe eclipse watching, as has the Royal Astronomical Society.

Fingers crossed for some breaks in the clouds tomorrow morning. Enjoy and be safe!

BICEP2, or how science progresses

It looks like 2015 has started with a lesson for progress in science, though perhaps not in the sense we’d hoped. A paper is expected to hit Arxiv this week (already available here) demonstrating that last year’s much-hyped result from the BICEP2 telescope, where scientists claimed to see the signature of inflation in their CMB polarisation map, is in fact a non-detection.

While the new paper hasn’t yet been made public, its contents have been widely discussed on- as well as offline. It will describe results from the analysis to correlate the BICEP2 data with that from the Planck cosmic microwave background satellite to better constrain the signal from our own Galaxy’s dust emission, which mimicks that expected from inflation. In attempting to disentangle the signal from these two effects, the authors of the original BICEP2 team had made some assumptions that at the time were already identified to be the major weakness of their analysis.

We always knew the Planck data would hold the answer, and this is the analysis that’s now being published.

Too bad that this enormous result couldn’t be confirmed, and I’ve heard many people grumble about the BICEP2 team for their major media push. But this is how science progresses – we have a model, we try to test it, new data contradicts old data, we keep pushing with better instruments, better methods, more stringent analysis, and eventually we arrive at some consensus. And perhaps someone wins a big prize somewhere down the line.

There are virtually no “eureka moments” in science research – it’s hard graft, trial and error. It’s nice to see new results get attention in the media, but it’s also important to keep talking about the ups and downs of scientific progress. In the mean time, the quest for evidence of our Universe’s birth continues.

E-ELT gets the go-ahead


The E-ELT, becoming a bit more real now. (Image: ESO)

The E-ELT, becoming a bit more real now. (Image: ESO)

I spent a couple of days this week in at MPIA in Heidelberg, working with my colleagues from MPIA and CEA Saclay in Paris on commissioning and calibrations plans for the James Webb Space Telescope instrument MIRI. The launch of JWST in 2018 is coming ever closer, and excitement is slowly building for this amazing project going live.

On the way back to Oxford I bumped into one of our local members of the ESO Council, who was returning from the meeting in which another major observatory project, the European Extremely Large Telescope, was given the go-ahead. This is news the whole community, and particularly those working in optical/IR instrumentation like myself, had been eagerly awaiting for a long time; we are very pleased indeed.

ESO have had a tough situation on their hands with the E-ELT in the last few years. The accession of Brazil to the organisation had turned from a sure thing a few years ago to an awkward silence. As Brazil’s membership would come with a sizeable cash injection to kickstart the E-ELT construction, the project stalled along with Brazil’s parliamentary ratification of the accession.

Of course lots of work was being done at ESO, and by the whole European community (including in Oxford, which is leading one of the first-light instruments, the spectrograph HARMONI). But it’s a bit awkward spending lots of national cash without formal clarity on the overall top-level funding situation. As long as ESO didn’t have at least 90% of the budget secured, they couldn’t move forward with the complicated business of actually building the telescope.

So what’s now changed? First, ESO’s newest member state Poland have brought in some extra cash into the coffers. Second, and most importantly for us technical folk, ESO have created a phased approach for the construction of the observatory. The first phase is slightly de-scoped from the original plan, costed such that the money currently available constitutes 90% of the required budget. A few features of the telescope are being pushed a bit further into the future, so that we can now get on with the major building works. Equally, the teams building the E-ELT’s first suite of instruments now have clarity on the situation and can continue with the design with more focus than was possible before – that’s a good thing.

We’d known that this solution was in the works for some months, and now that ESO Council has given its approval, it’s been formally brought into force. De-scoping a telescope is never fun of course. The telescope will be missing some of its mirror segments in Phase 1, giving a slightly smaller light collecting area for the first few years. More importantly, the laser tomographic adaptive optics (LTAO) system, which allows the instruments to use adaptive optics technology over the whole sky, even when no natural guide star is available, will be shifted into the second phase. That will definitely impact the instruments’ performance somewhat in the first years of operation. The community is obviously mulling over these issues, and what they mean, but ultimately it’s a pragmatic solution that allows the project and the many people involved to move forward.

Once the remainder of the funds becomes available, from Brazil or elsewhere, ESO can formally plan for the second phase. Interestingly, the difference between the “full” E-ELT design and the phase 1 plans don’t diverge for a few more years. If the additional money materialises in the next few years, the phasing may not even be necessary.

International mega-projects for science are always a challenge to fund – that’s why we have so few of them. Building the E-ELT on the ground still costs a factor of many less than putting a telescope like JWST into space. I think overall we’re all quite pleased with ESO’s pragmatism in finding this solution, and it will be great to see the E-ELT’s construction in Chile begin.


Python in Astronomy: A week of cheese, coding, bicycles and learning

TODAY (28 Nov) is the last day to apply for the Python in Astronomy workshop at the Lorentz Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was very happy when Tom Robitaille (MPIA) asked me to join him on the organising committee for this workshop. I’ve become a bit of a Python enthusiast in recent years, my coding skills have taken a big leap (my office being next to Tom’s for a while definitely helped with that!) and I’ve enjoyed learning and helping others get to grips with the language. I’ve often talked about the Astropy development effort, and particularly the Astropy developers community, as being an amazing example of how community-led collaborations can produce fantastic benefits to science and scientists.

The Python in Astronomy workshop wants to bring together people of different experience levels and background to share skills, teach and learn, and discuss how we can best pool our resources to produce great code and great science. Conferences like this can really help build a community and give people confidence to get their code out into the open, all of which are beneficial for continuing our journey of discovery in science. The Lorentz Center is probably one of the best venues in the world for such an event, with its great array of meeting and working spaces, great administrative and IT support, and excellent location in Leiden, which, having lived there for 4 years, I’m always excited to visit. It should be a fun, friendly and inspirational workshop with excellent people.

So don’t wait to fill out the application form, we look forward to hearing from you! All info on the webpage.