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.

Beyond .Astronomy

A lot has happened in the 6 years since Rob Simpson organised the first .Astronomy meeting in Cardiff – for one, he didn’t know it would be “the first” of anything at that time! After very successful subsequent conference in Leiden, Oxford, Heidelberg, and Cambridge (MA), dotAstro has grown from a small meeting and some tentative ideas into a Proper Thing. A Thing with a hashtag that gets talked about on  twitter and even in the real world. Our conference has spawned astronomy hack days on multiple continents, at major conferences, and has raised the profile of our tiny astronomy community in the bog wide world of science.

This year the meeting will take place at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago in early December. I’m always excited about dotAstro, and this year particularly so, as I’ve heard great things about Adler and I’ve never been to Chicago before. We have an awesome list of participants and I’m sure we’ll have a fantastic meeting.

Excitingly, Rob has managed to secure funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to invite, and pay for, a small number of participants from other fields of research, who would like to bring the dotAstro concept to their own subject area. For this he’s put out an open invitation to apply to come to the conference in December. The timescale is pretty short as we’d like to decide by 7 November.

Find out more about dotAstronomy here, and read Rob’s post about the non-astronomer initiative here. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, please apply!

JWST in the Pub

Some time ago I saw the excellent Jon Butterworth of UCL talk about his new book and his work in particle physics with the LHC at our local Oxford Skeptics in the Pub evening, and while I was there the organisers invited me to speak at a future event. I enjoy pubs, and I enjoy telling people about my work, so next Wednesday 1 October I’ll be in St Aldates Tavern to talk about the James Webb Space Telescope and my work on the MIRI instrument. I’m very grateful to the SitP organisers for inviting me, as these events are always good fun. The talk will start at 7:30 pm so if you’re in the area, please pop in for a beer.

The timing is rather good, as MIRI is just finishing its 2nd test campaign at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. At Goddard the instrument is now integrated with ISIM, the Integrated Science Instrument Module, together with all the other JWST instrument: NIRCam, NIRSpec, FGS and NIRISS. I spent a couple of weeks at Goddard in August to support the testing, and it was great to meet some of my colleagues working on the other instruments. Though we all still have our work cut out for us, it’s wonderful to see everything coming together after so many years of hard work by so many people all over North America and Europe.

And finally, my old institute MPIA in Heidelberg is hosting a conference this week on future exoplanet observations with MIRI and the other JWST instruments. Research into exoplanets has really come into maturity since work started on JWST, so this is an area where scientists are still learning and exploring what the new telescope will be able to do. ESA will begin preparing the community for JWST science operations next year, so now is the perfect time to start building some momentum. Due to my busy travel schedule I’m not able to be at the conference in person but I’m following on twitter via hashtag #exoJWST2014.


Little Green Man’s Guide to the Galaxy


This weekend, Oxford Astrophysics is taking a field trip. No, not to a telescope or a conference for once: we’re going to a music festival! A few months ago, our DPhil. student and dotAstronomer Ruth Angus had the great idea of pitching an idea to the excellent Green Man Festival in Wales to bring an astronomy stand. Green Man have an area on the festival site called Einstein’s Garden (also on twitter) for science-related activities, and we came up with some good ideas for astro-related fun for kids and grown-ups during the festival. Luckily the Green Man organisers agreed, and to help us out with the organisation we got a really generous grant from the Institute of Physics.

So a group of students and postdocs are off to the Brecon Beacons bright and early tomorrow. I helped out with the proposal writing and preparing some of the activities, but for all kinds of diary-related reasons I’m not joining the festival fun myself – boo to that.

Our main activity for the weekend will be observing the Sun through our department’s solar telescope, and making your own pinhole camera – fingers crossed for the big yellow orb making an appearance at some point! We prepared star charts showing the festival goers what’s up in the night sky this weekend, and of course there may be some lovely Perseid meteors to see overhead as well.

Green Man looks like a fun festival, and apart from a nice musical line-up they will have a huge range of other activities to keep people occupied. If you’re going to the festival, go say hi to the Oxford astro group and follow @GreenManGalaxy on twitter.