Archive for NASA

Honoris Causa, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 10, 2014 by telescoper

This morning I had the privilege of participating in a graduation ceremony at the University of Sussex. It was great to get to shake the hands of all the successful graduates as they crossed the stage to receive their degrees. I hope I’ll be able to collect a few pictures of the occasion and post them in due course.



I also had the privilege of being able to present an extremely distinguished honorary graduand, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou. Here the oration I delivered, which I’m posting simply to record her amazing achievements and to underline that she is one of many people who have done the MSc in Astronomy at Sussex University and gone on to do great things…



It is both a pleasure and an honour to present for the award of the degree of Doctor of Science, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou.

Inspired by watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon, Dr Kouveliotou always wanted to be an astronaut but, with no such opportunities apparently on offer in her native, she instead chose a career in astronomy. However, when she completed college Greece her astronomy professor (who shall remain nameless) advised her that there was no future for her in astrophysics. She has never known whether he really thought it was a poor choice or whether it was because she was a woman. Determined to follow her own path, she disregarded him completely and, even though her open-minded parents’ preference was for her to settle down and stay in her home country, she left to study for her Master’s degree in Astronomy at the University of Sussex; the topic of her dissertation was “The Sodium emission cloud around Io: mapping and correlation with Jupiter’s magnetic field”. She received the MSc in Astronomy in 1977. Although the topic of her subsequent research was rather different, the connection with magnetic fields remained strong.

Dr Kouveliotou then moved to Germany to do postgraduate research on the-then very new topic of gamma-ray bursts. Indeed, she may well have been the very first person to complete a thesis on this, which remains to this day an extremely active and exciting field of research. Gamma-ray bursts are considered to be the most powerful explosions in the universe, second only to the Big Bang itself.

After completing her PhD, Dr Kouveliotou returned to Greece to teach Physics and Astronomy at the University of Athens. All the while she knew that she really wanted to do research so spent her free time pursuing this goal. Every vacation and on her one-year sabbatical she went to the USA to undertake research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Her work was on solar flares but she moonlighted during evenings, nights and weekends researching her ‘first love’ gamma-ray bursts. Because of the research she undertook outside her “day job”, she found a series of bursts which all came from the same part of the sky and, as a result, became part of the discovery team for a brand new phenomenon called a soft gamma-ray repeater.

By observing gamma rays produced in space, her team discovered an example of a new class of exotic astronomical object called a magnetar, an object which has a magnetic field trillions of times stronger than that of the Earth. A magnetar is now known to be a type of neutron star, a burnt-out relic resulting from the death of an ordinary star in a supernova explosion.

Dr Kouveliotou has always loved to ask big questions, to look at the universe and ask how nature expresses itself. By overcoming obstacles in her path she really has reached the stars. In January 2013 Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou was named the Senior Scientist for High Energy Astrophysics, Science and Research Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama.

She has received many awards for her work, including the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 2012 and the NASA Space Act Award in 2005. She was also named amongst Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in Space in 2012. In 2003 she was honoured with the annual Rossi Prize by the High Energy Astrophysics division of the American Astronomical Society for a significant contribution to high-energy astrophysics. In 2002 she received the Descartes Prize which recognises scientific breakthroughs from European collaborative research in any scientific field. In the awards bestowed upon her she has also been recognised for her effectiveness at creating the sort of large collaboration needed to make effective use of multi-wavelength astronomical observations.

Dr Kouveliotou has published almost 400 papers in refereed scientific journals and has been amongst the top 10 most-cited space science researchers in the academic literature across the world. She has been elected chair of the Division of Astrophysics of the American Physical Society and is a member of the Council of the American Astronomical Society, of which she chairs the High Energy Astrophysics Division.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou.



Article of the Day!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by telescoper

Back in the office today, the heatwave having given way to grey drizzle and cool breezes (at least for the time being). I’ve got stacks of paperwork to catch up on, but fortunately I’ve got time to post a quick congratulatory message to Ian Harrison, who is author of today’s NASA ADS Article of the Day! Ian is a PhD student in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University and was supervised by me until I abandoned ship to come here to Sussex earlier this year; he’s got a postdoctoral research position lined up in the Midlands (Manchester) when he finishes his thesis. The other author, Shaun Hotchkiss, is coming to Sussex as a postdoctoral researcher in October.

Anyway, the paper is a nice one, called A consistent approach to falsifying ΛCDM with rare galaxy clusters. Here’s the abstract:

We consider methods with which to answer the question “is any observed galaxy cluster too unusual for ΛCDM?” After emphasising that many previous attempts to answer this question will overestimate the confidence level at which ΛCDM can be ruled out, we outline a consistent approach to these rare clusters, which allows the question to be answered. We define three statistical measures, each of which are sensitive to changes in cluster populations arising from different modifications to the cosmological model. We also use these properties to define the “equivalent mass at redshift zero” for a cluster — the mass of an equally unusual cluster today. This quantity is independent of the observational survey in which the cluster was found, which makes it an ideal proxy for ranking the relative unusualness of clusters detected by different surveys. These methods are then used on a comprehensive sample of observed galaxy clusters and we confirm that all are less than 2σ deviations from the ΛCDM expectation. Whereas we have only applied our method to galaxy clusters, it is applicable to any isolated, collapsed, halo. As motivation for future surveys, we also calculate where in the mass redshift plane the rarest halo is most likely to be found, giving information as to which objects might be the most fruitful in the search for new physics.

In case you’re wondering, the rather Popperian nature of the title is not the reason why I’m not among the authors. I’m just not the sort of supervisor who feels he should always be an author of papers done by his research students even when they had the idea and did all the work themselves. From what I’ve heard talking to others, we’re a dying breed!

Cosmic Swirly Straws Feed Galaxy

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 5, 2013 by telescoper

I came across this video on youtube and was intrigued because the title seemed like a crossword clue (to which I couldn’t figure out the answer). It turns out that it goes with a piece in the Guardian which describes a computer simulation showing the formation of a galaxy during the first 2bn years of the Universe’s evolution. Those of us interested in cosmic structures on a larger scale than galaxies usually show such simulations in co-moving coordinates (i.e. in a box that expands at the same rate as the Universe), but this one is in physical coordinates showing the actual size of the objects therein; the galaxy is seen first to condense out of the expanding distribution of matter, but then grows by accreting matter in a complicated and rather beautiful way.

This calculation includes gravitational and hydrodynamical effects, allowing it to trace the separate behaviour of dark matter and gas (predominantly hydrogen).  You can see that this particular object forms very early on; the current age of the Universe is estimated to be about 13 – 14 billion years. When we look far into space using very big telescopes we see objects from which light has taken billion of years to reach us. We can therefore actually see galaxies as they were forming and can therefore test observationally whether they form as theory (and simulation) suggest.

Sic Transit Gloria Monday

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 11, 2012 by telescoper

I can never resist a terrible pun, so thought this would be an especially  good day to post this video from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory,  showing views of last week’s Transit of Venus taken at several different wavelengths..


Tinker Tailor Soldier…Astronomer?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 4, 2012 by telescoper


Tinker Tailor Soldier…Astronomer?

Originally posted on The e-Astronomer:

Not often I write two posts in one day, but here is an unexpected piece of news. It seems that the US National Reconnaisance Office have given two free telescopes to NASA. Its all explained at this NY Times article. They are as big as HST but have a wider field of view. They were designed for looking down of course.  Apparently there has been a secret study team and their conclusion is that one of these beasts would be perfect WFIRST, which had seemed to be kicked into the long grass.

They don’t exactly have the rest of the money yet or an actual approval … but the WFIRST fans are talking about shooting for 2020 … a year behind Euclid.

Ooooo what fun. Spot of healthy competition.

View original

JWST: Over and Out?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 23, 2011 by telescoper

News filtered through recently that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already  threatened with cancellation owing to cuts in NASA’s budget, is now estimated to be around $8.7 billion dollars, about $2.2 billion higher than previous figures. In fact about a decade ago, when I was a lad, and chair of the old PPARC Astronomy Advisory Panel, the price tag of  the NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), as it was then called, was put at significantly less than one billion dollars.

The implications of cancelling JWST are profound on both sides of the Atlantic. As Mark McCaughrean explains in detail over on the e-astronomer, the European Space Agency has already made a substantial investment in JWST and planned future contributions include the launch and substantial operating costs. The instrument development is nearly finished, but whether there will actually be a telescope to put instruments on remains to be seen. It’s clear that this, together with previous unilateral decisions by NASA, is putting some strain on the relationship with ESA.

There were many who reacted to the initial suggestion that JWST should be cancelled by arguing that it was mere political posturing by Republicans in the House of Representatives and that it could and would be reversed if appropriate campaigning took place. To this end there has been, e.g.,  a letter to the White House Science Advisor (here for non-US astronomers and there for US ones). There’s also been a letter of support from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s administrators have also apparently come up with a plan to divert funds from other projects to support it. These efforts notwithstanding I get the distinct feeling that cancellation of JWST is a very real prospect and it goes without saying that the chances of avoiding it are not helped by  the increased estimated expense.

I’ve talked about this to a number of astronomers and cosmologists over the summer and found very mixed views not only about  (a) whether JWST will be cancelled or not but also about (b) whether it should be cancelled or not. Even astronomers have expressed exasperation with the spiralling cost of JWST and pointed out that if we had known a decade ago that it would take so long and involve such an outlay then it would never have gone ahead in the first place.

So let me try a straw poll:

Not Now, Voyager

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by telescoper

Last week I found myself a bit perplexed by the frenzy of twitter angst surrounding the last ever launch of the Space Shuttle. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. I’ve often felt like there must be something wrong with me for not getting agitated over such things. After Altantis returns to Earth in a couple of weeks’ time she will be taken out of service and, for the foreseeable future, America will no longer have the ability to put humans into orbit. This does mark the end of an era, of course, but is it really something to get all upset about?

I find myself agreeing with the Guardian editorial, which I’ve taken the liberty of copying here:

Fewer than 600 people have been admitted an exclusive club: space travel. Now, with the last flight of the space shuttle under way, the membership list is harder to join than ever. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, half a century ago, and when astronauts landed on the moon eight years later, it would have been inconceivable to think of a time when manned space flight began to slip from the present to the past. But America, at least for the moment, no longer has the capacity to send people into space. In terms of national pride, this may be a failure. In terms of scientific advancement, it may not matter that much at all. Deep space exploration – using robot probes – is a very different and more useful thing than the expensive and unreliable effort to send human beings into low earth orbit, no further from Cape Canaveral than New York. The shuttle has been an icon of its age, but its human passengers – however brave and skilled – have made their flights as much to show the world what America could do as for any particular and necessary purpose. Even the International Space Station, extraordinary though it is, could operate without a human presence, its experiments automated. The only good argument for sending people into space is the simple daring of it – the need, as Star Trek used to claim, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Visit Mars, by all means – but there is little to be gained by sending astronauts to orbit this planet, not all that far above our heads.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Space Shuttle is how matter-of-fact it has become. It’s rather like Concorde, which was an engineering marvel that people would drop everything and gawp at when it  first appeared, but which soon became a part of everyday life. Technology is inevitably like that – what seemed remarkable twenty years ago is now pretty commonplace.

I had similar feelings a couple of  years ago, when Planck and Herschel were launched. Of course I was extremely nervous then , because many of my colleagues had invested so much time and effort in these missions. However, watching the behaviour of the mission control staff at ESA during the launch it struck me how routine it all was for them. It’s a great achievement, I think, to take something so complex and turn it into an everyday operation.

Incidentally, it always strikes me as curious that people use the phrase “rocket science” to define something incredibly difficult. In fact rocket science is extremely simple: the energy source is one of the simplest chemical reactions possible, and the path of the rocket is a straightforward consequence of Newton’s laws of motion. It’s turning this simple science into working technology where the difficulties lie, and it’s a powerful testament to the brilliance of the engineers working in the space programme that workable solutions have been found and implemented in working systems.

So now the era of the Shuttle has passed, what next? Should America (and Europe, for that matter) be aiming to send people to Mars? Should manned spaceflight resume at all?

Different people will answer these questions in different ways. Speaking purely from a scientific point of view I would say that manned space exploration just isn’t cost effective. But going to Mars isn’t really about science; going to the Moon wasn’t either. It’s partly an issue of national pride – note how loss of the Shuttle programme has effectively ended America’s dominance in space, and how keenly that has been felt by many US commentators.

Others argue that manned space flight inspires people to become scientists, and should be done for that reason. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, and I’m sure there will be many who disagree with me, but it wasn’t the Apollo missions that inspired me to become a scientist. When I was a kid I found the footage of people jumping around on the Moon rather boring, to be honest. What inspired me was the excellent science education I received at School. And just think how many physics teachers you could train for the cost of, e.g. the ESA Aurora program

Another argument is “because it’s there” or, as Walt Whitman put it,

THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

As a species we have an urge to set challenges for ourselves, whether by asking difficult questions, by designing and building difficult devices, or by attempting difficult journeys – sometimes all three! This is our nature and we shouldn’t shy away from it. But we should also recognize that “going there” is just one of the ways in which we can explore the cosmos. Modern telescopes can see almost to the visible edge of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider can probe scales much smaller than the nucleus of an atom. I worry sometimes that the political lobbying for manned space flight often seems to be arguing that it should be funded by taking money from other, more fundamental, scientific investigations. Astronomers and particle physcisists are explorers too, and they also inspire. Don’t they?

Gravity waves goodbye to LISA?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 8, 2011 by telescoper

It seems that we’re not allowed to have any good news these days without a bit of bad to go with it. This week it has emerged here and there that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known as NASA) is pulling the plug on one of the most exciting space missions on its drawing board. Feeling the pressure of budget constraints and a ballooning overspend on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA has decided not to participate further in the Laser Interferometric Space Antenna, a.k.a. LISA. The project teams working on LISA have been disbanded, and the shutters have been pulled down on a project which would have revolutionised astrophysics by opening up new possibilities of observing astronomical objects using gravitational waves, rather than electromagnetic radiation.

This does not mean that LISA is necessarily completely dead. For one thing, it was always planned to be a partnership between NASA and its European counterpart ESA (the European Space Agency); you can find ESA’s LISA page here. In fact a technological demonstrating mission LISA-Pathfinder, operated by ESA, is scheduled for launch in 2013.
It remains possible that ESA will proceed on its own with some version of LISA, although given its own financial constraints it is unlikely that it will be able to fund the full original mission concept. The best we can hope for, therefore, is probably some slimmed-down low-budget version and perhaps an even later launch date.

I still hold out some hope that LISA might come out of mothballs when gravitational waves are actually detected. This may well be accomplished by Advanced LIGO, a ground-based interferometric system based in the states, although it has to be said that gravitational waves have been “on the brink of detection” for at least 30 years and still haven’t actually been found. When detection does become a reality it might galvanise NASA into finding room in its budget again.

This news will be a particularly concern for the sizeable Gravitational Physics group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. However, LISA was very much in the planning and development stages so it won’t impact their current work. I haven’t had the chance to discuss the news about LISA with members of this group, so I’d be interested to receive comments from them, or indeed anyone else who knows more about what NASA’s decision may or not mean for the future of gravitational wave physics.


The Sun’s not Behaving…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 6, 2010 by telescoper

Check out this dramatic and slightly alarming picture of a huge filament emanating from the surface of the Sun, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The filament is about 700,000km long, apparently – that’s an entire Solar Radius. It’s expected to collapse back into the Sun at some point, an event which should be rather exciting! For more details see here.

Even better, here’s a close-up animation.

It reminds me a bit of that Balrog thing in The Lord of the Rings that gave Gandalf such a good run for his money.


The Next Decade of Astronomy?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on August 14, 2010 by telescoper

I feel obliged to pass on the news that the results of the Decadal Review of US Astronomy were announced yesterday. There has already been a considerable amount of reaction to what the Review Panel (chaired by the esteemed Roger Blandford) came up with from people much more knowledgeable about observational astronomy and indeed US Science Politics, so I won’t try to do a comprehensive analysis here. I draw your attention instead to the report itself  (which you can download in PDF form for free)  and Julianne Dalcanton’s review of, and comments on, the Panel’s conclusions about the priorities for  space-based and ground-based astronomy for the next decade or so over on Cosmic Variance.  There’s also a piece by Andy Lawrence over on The e-Astronomer’s blog. I’ll just mention that Top of the Pops for space-based astronomy is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which you can read a bit more about here, and King of the Castle for the ground-based programme is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Both of these hold great promise for the area I work in – cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics – so I’m pleased to see our American cousins placing such a high priority on them. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which is designed to detect gravitational waves, also did very well, which is great news for Cardiff’s Gravitational Physics group.

It will be interesting to see what effect – if any – these priorities have on the ranking of corresponding projects this side of the Atlantic. Some of the space missions involved in the Decadal Review in fact depend on both NASA and ESA so there clearly will be a big effect on such cases. For example, the proposed International X-ray Observatory (IXO) did less well than many might have anticipated, with clear implications for  Europe (including the UK).  The current landscape  of X-ray astronomy is dominated by Chandra and XMM, both of which were launched in 1999 and which are both nearing the end of their operational lives. Since X-ray astronomy can only be done from space, abandoning IXO would basically mean the end of the subject  as we know it, but the question is how to bridge the  the gap between the end of these two missions and the start of IXO even if it does go ahead but not until long after 2020? Should we keep X-ray astronomers on the payroll twiddling their thumbs for the next decade when other fields are desperately short of manpower for science exploitation?

On a more general level, it’s not obvious how we should react when the US gives a high priority to a given mission anyway. Of course, it gives us confidence that we’re not being silly when very smart people across the Pond endorse missions and facilities similar to ones we are considering over here. However, generally speaking the Americans tend to be able to bring missions from the drawing board to completion much faster than we can in Europe. Just compare WMAP with Planck, for instance. Trying to compete with the US, rather than collaborate, seems likely to ensure only that we remain second best. There’s an argument, therefore, for Europe having a programme that is, in some respects at least, orthogonal to the United States; in matters where we don’t collaborate, we should go for facilities that complement rather than compete with those the Americans are building.

It’s all very well talking of priorities in the UK but we all know that the Grim Reaper is shortly going to be paying a visit to the budget of the  agency that administers funding for our astronomy, STFC. This organization went through a financial crisis all of its very own in 2007 from which it is still reeling. Now it has to face the prospect of further savage cuts. The level of “savings” being discussed  – at least 25%  -means that the STFC management must be pondering some pretty drastic measures, even pulling out of the European Southern Observatory (which we only joined in 2002). The trouble is that most of the other ground-based astronomical facilities used by UK astronomers have been earmarked for closure, or STFC has withdrawn from them. Britain’s long history of excellence in ground-based astronomy now hangs in the balance. It’s scary.

I hope the government can be persuaded that STFC should be spared another big cut and I’m sure that there’s extensive lobbying going on.  Indeed, STFC has already requested input to its plans for the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). With this in mind, the Royal Astronomical Society has produced a new booklet designed to point out the  relevance of astronomy to wider society. However I can’t rid from my mind the memory a certain meeting in London in 2007 at which the STFC Chief Executive revealed the true scale of STFC’s problems. He predicted that things would be much worse at the next CSR, i.e. this one. And that was before the Credit Crunch, and the consequent arrival of a new government swinging a very large axe. I wish I could be optimistic but, frankly, I’m not.

When the CSR is completed then STFC will have yet again to do another hasty re-prioritisation. Their Science Board has clearly been preparing:

… Science Board discussed a number of thought provoking scenarios designed to explore the sort of issues that the Executive may be confronted with if there were to be a significant funding reduction as a result of the 2010 comprehensive spending review settlement. As a result of these deliberations Science Board provided the Executive with guidance on how to take forward this strategic planning.

This illustrates a big difference in the way such prioritisation exercises are carried out in the UK versus the USA. The Decadal Review described above is a high-profile study, carried out by a panel of distinguished experts, which takes detailed input from a large number of scientists, and which delivers a coherent long-term vision for the future of the subject. I’m sure not everyone agrees with their conclusions, but the vast majority respect its impartiality and level-headedness and have confidence in the overall process. Here in the UK we have “consultation exercises” involving “advisory panels” who draw up detailed advice which then gets fed into STFC’s internal panels. That bit is much like the Decadal Review. However, at least in the case of the last prioritisation exercise, the community input doesn’t seem to bear any obvious relationship to what comes out the other end. I appreciate that there are probably more constraints on STFC’s Science Board than it has degrees of freedom, but there’s no getting away from the sense of alienation and cynicism this has generated across large sections of the UK astronomy community.

The problem with our is that we always seem to be reacting to financial pressure rather than taking the truly long-term “blue-skies” view that is clearly needed for big science projects of the type under discussion. The Decadal Review, for example, places great importance on striking a balance between large- and small-scale experiments. Here we tend slash the latter because they’re easier to kill than the former. If this policy goes on much longer, in the long run we’ll end up a with few enormous expensive facilities but none of the truly excellent science that can be done from using smaller kit.  A crucial aspect of this that that science seems to have been steadily relegated in importance in favour of technology ever since the creation of STFC.  This must be reversed. We need a proper strategic advisory panel with strong scientific credentials that stands outside the existing STFC structure but which has real influence on STFC planning, i.e. one which plays the same role in the UK as the Decadal Review does in the States.

Assuming, of course, that there’s any UK astronomy left in the next decade…


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