Defining the objectives of a mega science project

SKAKSW_poster (1)Time for another blogpost as I fly back to the UK. I’ve just spent a week in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the organising team behind the first SKA Key Science Workshop where some 150 astronomers from 23 countries gathered.

As a non-astronomer, this was a fascinating meeting to sit in. It was the first of a series of such workshops to define the scope of the key science projects of the SKA and the large international teams of collaborators that will conduct them. Like any major observatory, telescope, or science facility, the SKA has a set of “objectives”. They are the key science drivers behind the facility. In the case of the SKA, key science projects are expected to occupy at least 50% of the time on the telescope in its first 5 years of full operation. That represents over 20,000 hours of observations!

Currently scheduled to start operating in 2020 with a partial array while construction is still ongoing, the SKA will probably see three years of commissioning and early science observations before key science projects start, occupying the period 2023-2028. Why 5 years? Essentially, because this should be enough time to represent a certain measure of “return on investment” for the countries involved.

You might think discussing these details 8 years beforehand is a bit early but there was actually much to talk about.

Science Working Groups – each dedicated to a specific area of astrophysics – sat down to discuss the scope of the observations they want to conduct and the possibilities for commensality – that is, for other groups to benefit from the same observations or data. Essentially, it’s saying “hey, we’re interested in looking at the same patch of sky for different reasons, why not do two or three things at the same time and make the most of the time we have?” or even “hey, your data contains a lot of things we might be interested in, let’s use it”. And because time on such a big facility will be very limited (the world’s best telescopes are heavily “over-subscribed”, meaning there are many more scientists who apply for observing time than there is available time), maximising commensality is crucial.

It was a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a developing major science facility. And in the true tradition of science, it was done in consultation with the community.

So what will these 20,000 hours be dedicated to? A lot of things. Among them, big surveys to map the sky. Like a survey to detect all the pulsars in the galaxy – some 10,000 of them – which should help us better understand gravity and maybe observe gravitational waves. There’s also the opportunity to do solar physics, observing things like CMEs which is helpful for space weather. We also hope to be available to characterise exoplanets by observing their aurorae, the interaction between their star and the planet’s magnetic field – providing valuable information both on the star and the planet’s interior.

And why Stockholm, Sweden? Well, Sweden is participating in the SKA, developing receivers that may be fitted on the SKA’s dishes. It’s also the home of the Nobel Prizes. This might sound down right arrogant, but some of the discoveries we expect to make with the SKA may be so fundamental that they could reap a Nobel Prize. Perhaps even someone sitting in the room this week will be back to receive one in a couple of decades!

So this was an important meeting, but it’s also important to remember this is only the start of the SKA. With the SKA expected to be operational during 50 years, the key science projects could be said to only represent 5% of the observing time during the lifetime of the telescope. And with the potential they have to change our understanding of the Universe, just imagine what the other 95% might bring!

For details, take a look at the #SKAKSW15 hashtag on Twitter.


Bringing space back to people

This weekend I discovered Ambition, a mind-blowing short film. Ambition brings the story of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to the screen. If you don’t know about it, Rosetta is a space probe that was sent 10 years ago to rendezvous with a comet, and after recently arriving, in a few weeks will drop a probe on its surface to study the origins of water on Earth (thought to come from comets). It’s a truly audacious mission that had never been attempted before.

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On Germany’s decision to leave the SKA Organisation

Last week, while getting ready to fly to the big SKA science conference in Sicily, I had the rather unexpected and disappointing surprise to hear that Germany had decided to leave the SKA Organisation. This came as a shock. The project has been moving forward steadily for the past two years and I think none of us were expecting a country to withdraw at this point.

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On the UK Science Minister’s visit and investment in science

Last week, at the Jodrell Bank Observatory where I am based, we welcomed the UK Science Minister David Willetts.

We had learnt of his possible visit some weeks before but were only confirmed the subject of his visit some days before. The Minister came to announce some 300 million pounds worth of investment in research ( yes that’s 300 million, no typos).

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Guiding Light to the Stars – combining art & science to inspire

Winner of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for 2013 in the category "Earth and Space". All credit to Mark Gee

Winner of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for 2013 in the category “Earth and Space”. All credit to Mark Gee

This stunning photograph by Mark Gee (full res here), aptly named “Guiding Light to the Stars”, won the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for 2013 in the category “Earth and Space”.

The caption reads:

A spectacular view of the Milky Way arching over the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The brightest light in the image is from the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. The central patch of light in the sky marks the bulge of stars at the heart of our Galaxy, 26,000 light years away. To the left, the two Magellanic Clouds, small satellite galaxies much further away, appear as faint smudges in the sky.

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