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.


Telescopes in the Outback

A few weeks ago while in Australia, I had the opportunity to return to a pretty special place: the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory or MRO.

Why is it so special? Well for starters, the site happens to be sitting on some of the oldest ground on the planet, with rocks nearby dated at 4.3 billion years old. (the oldest dated at 4.7 billion years were found just a few hundred kilometres away) This is an old weathered land, and until 10 years ago, there was only red dirt here. Not only this, but in some years the MRO will be home to the Australian component of the largest scientific instrument on the planet: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

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Game-changing science with the SKA discussed in Sicily

Back on the plane from Sicily to the UK, I finally had some time to reflect and write about last week’s exciting SKA science conference that happened in Giardini Naxos from June 8-13 (and of which I was part of the organising team).

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Trip to the Australian outback part 2: the observatory

I wake up in the early hours, woken up by the sound of the cockatoos in the trees. But apart from the birds, nothing can be heard. I take a look outside my tent, dawn is starting, with orange and red colours creeping up and gaining on the pitch black night sky. Colours like these can only be seen in these remote places.

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Trip to the Australian outback part 1: Star Party

My alarm rings at 8am and I open my eyes in an unfamiliar room. High ceiling, old wooden floor, large comfortable bed and big pillows. There is no noise around. No beeping sound, no horns, no cars to be heard. Silence. I’m at Wooleen Station, in outback Western Australia, some 250km inland. Outside, the seemingly endless outback with its characteristic sticky red dust, low bushes and trees on an almost flat land as far as the eye can see. We had driven the day before from Perth. An 8-hour roadtrip up the coast with views of the Indian Ocean and then through countryside Australia, before driving 200km on dirt tracks in the flat remote country.

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