Archive for European Space Agency

Planck wins the Gruber Prize (and the Shaw Prize)

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2018 by telescoper

I forgot to mention last week that the 2018 Gruber Prize for Cosmology has been awarded to the Planck team, and its Principal Investigators Nazzareno Mandolesi and Jean-Loup Puget.

For more information about the award and the citation, see here.

This annual prize is worth $500,00; the two PIs will get $125,000 each and the rest divided among the team. I’m not sure whether this means the Planck Science Team (whose membership is listed here or the entire Planck Collaboration (which numbers several hundred people) but regardless of whoever gets the actual dosh, this award provides a good excuse to send congratulations to everyone who worked on this brilliant and highly successful mission!


UPDATE: 14th May 2018. Jean-Loup Puget has also been awarded the Shaw Prize for Astronomy.


Gaia’s Second Data Release!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 26, 2018 by telescoper

It seems like only yesterday that I was blogging excitedly about the first release of data (DR1) from the European Space Agency’s Gaia Mission. In fact it was way back in 2016! Anyway, yesterday came another glut of Gaia goodness in the form of the second release of data, known to its friends as DR2.

In case you weren’t aware, Gaia is an ambitious space mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, in the process revealing the composition, formation and evolution of the Galaxy. Gaia will provide unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements with the accuracy needed to produce a stereoscopic and kinematic census of about one billion stars in our Galaxy and throughout the Local Group. This amounts to about 1 per cent of the Galactic stellar population.

You can find links to all the DR2 science papers here, a guide to how to use the data here, and of course a link to the full Gaia Archive here.

Here’s a (brief!) list of the contents of DR2:

  • The five-parameter astrometric solution – positions on the sky (α, δ), parallaxes, and proper motions – for more than 1.3 billion (109) sources, with a limiting magnitude of G = 21 and a bright limit of G ≈ 3. Parallax uncertainties are in the range of up to 0.04 milliarcsecond for sources at G < 15, around 0.1 mas for sources with G=17 and at the faint end, the uncertainty is of the order of 0.7 mas at G = 20. The corresponding uncertainties in the respective proper motion components are up to 0.06 mas yr-1 (for G < 15 mag), 0.2 mas yr-1 (for G = 17 mag) and 1.2 mas yr-1 (for G = 20 mag). The Gaia DR2 parallaxes and proper motions are based only on Gaia data; they do no longer depend on the Tycho-2 Catalogue.
  • Median radial velocities (i.e. the median value over the epochs) for more than 7.2 million stars with a mean G magnitude between about 4 and 13 and an effective temperature (Teff) in the range of about 3550 to 6900 K. This leads to a full six-parameter solution: positions and motions on the sky with parallaxes and radial velocities, all combined with mean G magnitudes. The overall precision of the radial velocities at the bright end is in the order of 200-300 m s-1 while at the faint end the overall precision is approximately 1.2 km s-1 for a Teff of 4750 K and about 2.5 km s-1 for a Teff of 6500 K.
  • An additional set of more than 361 million sources for which a two-parameter solution is available: the positions on the sky (α, δ) combined with the mean G magnitude. These sources have a positional uncertainty at G=20 of about 2 mas, at J2015.5.
    G magnitudes for more than 1.69 billion sources, with precisions varying from around 1 milli-mag at the bright (G<13) end to around 20 milli-mag at G=20. Please be aware that the photometric system for the G band in Gaia DR2 is different from the photometric system as used in Gaia DR1.
  • GBP and GRP magnitudes for more than 1.38 billion sources, with precisions varying from a few milli-mag at the bright (G<13) end to around 200 milli-mag at G=20.
  • Full passband definitions for G, BP and RP. These passbands are now available for download.
  • Epoch astrometry for 14,099 known solar system objects based on more than 1.5 million CCD observations. 96% of the along-scan (AL) residuals are in the range -5 to 5 mas, and 52% of the AL residuals are in the range of -1 to 1 mas. The transit observations are part of Gaia DR2 and have also been delivered to the Minor Planet Center (MPC).
  • Subject to limitations (see below) the effective temperatures Teff for more than 161 million sources brighter than 17th magnitude with effective temperatures in the range 3000 to 10,000 K. For a subset of about 87 million sources also the line-of-sight extinction AG and reddening E(BP-RP) are given and for a part of this subset (around 76 million sources) the luminosity and radius are available as well.
  • Classifications for more than 550,000 variable sources consisting of Cepheids, RR Lyrae, Mira and Semi-Regular Candidates as well as High-Amplitude Delta Scuti, BY Draconis candidates, SX Phoenicis Candidates and short time scale phenomena.
  • Planned cross-matches between Gaia DR2 sources on the one hand and Hipparcos-2, Tycho-2, 2MASS PSC, SDSS DR9, Pan-STARRS1, GSC2.3, PPM-XL, AllWISE, and URAT-1 data on the other hand.

There’s much more to Gaia than pictures, but here’s a map of the stars in our galaxy to give you an idea:

I remember first hearing about Gaia about 17 years ago when I was on a PPARC advisory panel and was immediately amazed  by the ambition of its objectives. As I mentioned above, Gaia is a global space astrometry mission, which will make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy by surveying more than a billion stars. In some sense Gaia is the descendant of the Hipparcos mission launched in 1989, but it’s very much more than that. Gaia monitors each of its target stars about 70 times over a five-year period. It is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets and brown dwarfs, and observe hundreds of thousands of asteroids within our own Solar System. The mission is also expected to yield a wide variety of other benefits, including new tests of the  General Theory of Relativity.

For the brighter objects, i.e. those brighter than magnitude 15, Gaia  measures their positions to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds, comparable to measuring the diameter of a human hair at a distance of 1000 km. Distances of relatively nearby stars are measured to an accuracy of 0.001%. Even stars near the Galactic Centre, some 30,000 light-years away, have their distances measured to within an accuracy of 20%.

It’s an astonishing mission that will leave an unbelievably rich legacy not only for the astronomers working on the front-line operations of Gaia but for generations to come.

Ariel to Fly

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 23, 2018 by telescoper

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure. Be ‘t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.

The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2.

It’s nice to be able to pass on a bit of good news for the good folk of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

The ARIEL mission has been given the green light by the European Space Agency and will launch sometime around 2028. It will produce the first ever large-scale survey of the atmospheric chemistry of planets outside our solar system. Ariel will extract the chemical fingerprints of the gases in the atmospheres of over 1000 exoplanets, as well as capturing information about the temperatures and pressures in their atmospheres and the presence of clouds.

Whenever I read of exciting news from the field of exoplanet research – which happens quite frequently nowadays – it reminds me that when I started my graduate studies (in 1985) the field didn’t really exist. Now it’s one of the biggest and most active areas of astronomy! Another thing that makes me feel a bit of a dinosaur is that when Ariel actually launches I’ll be 65…

As with all such missions, a large international collaboration will be involved in Ariel, and much of the detail of who will do what is yet to be worked out, but Cardiff scientists will be providing detailed computer simulations of the Ariel satellite and its instruments, ensuring that the scientific observations can be carefully planned and the resulting data can be analysed correctly. The team will also be involved in the ground segment after launch, interpreting the data from the observations to characterise the atmospheres of the exoplanets. The Principal Investigator of the whole mission is Professor Giovanna Tinetti of University College, London, who I see regularly at dinner with the RAS Club.

Head Irishman of the School, Matt Griffin, who will himself is quoted in the news item as saying

The decision to select the Ariel mission demonstrates the scientific vision and ambition of ESA, and it’s the start of a great adventure for everyone involved. This is a mission that will hugely advance our understanding of the nature of planets and of our place in the Universe, and at Cardiff we are very much looking forward to our participation in the project.

The launch date of 2028 is some way off but space missions are exceedingly complicated things and there’s a lot to do in the next decade or so until Ariel finally flies. Hopefully neither swimming, nor diving into fire nor riding on the curled clouds will be involved, but the scientific quality is something of which we can be very confident.

Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this mission selected and best wishes to all those involved in Cardiff and elsewhere!

Maynooth joins the Euclid Community

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 10, 2018 by telescoper

There’s a nice webpage showing all the institutions around the world who belong to the consortium behind the European Space Agency’s Euclid Mission. Here’s a screen grab that shows all the logos of all the institutions involved in this very large Consortium:

There are so many that it’s hard to see them all, but if you look very closely about half way down, among the Ms, you will see Maynooth University among them. This is the first institution in Ireland to have joined the Euclid Consortium and it has just been officially added thanks to yours truly moving there later this year. Ireland is a member state of the European Space Agency, by the way.

Merging Galaxies in the Early Universe

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 14, 2017 by telescoper

I just saw this little movie circulated by the European Space Agency.

The  source displayed in the video was first identified by European Space Agency’s now-defunct Herschel Space Observatory, and later imaged with much higher resolution using the ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. It’s a significant discovery because it shows two large galaxies at quite high redshift (z=5.655) undergoing a major merger. According to the standard cosmological model this event occurred about a billion years after the Big Bang. The first galaxies are thought to have formed after a few hundred million years, but these objects are expected to have been be much smaller than present-day galaxies like the Milky Way. Major mergers of the type seen apparently seen here are needed if structures are to grow sufficiently rapidly, through hierarchical clustering, to produce what we see around us now, about 13.7 Gyrs after the Big Bang.

The ESA press release can be found here and for more expert readers the refereed paper (by Riechers et al.) can be found here (if you have a subscription to the Astrophysical Journal or for free on the arXiv here.

The abstract (which contains a lot of technical detail about the infra-red/millimetre/submillimetre observations involved in the study) reads:

We report the detection of ADFS-27, a dusty, starbursting major merger at a redshift of z=5.655, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ADFS-27 was selected from Herschel/SPIRE and APEX/LABOCA data as an extremely red “870 micron riser” (i.e., S_250<S_350<S_500<S_870), demonstrating the utility of this technique to identify some of the highest-redshift dusty galaxies. A scan of the 3mm atmospheric window with ALMA yields detections of CO(5-4) and CO(6-5) emission, and a tentative detection of H2O(211-202) emission, which provides an unambiguous redshift measurement. The strength of the CO lines implies a large molecular gas reservoir with a mass of M_gas=2.5×10^11(alpha_CO/0.8)(0.39/r_51) Msun, sufficient to maintain its ~2400 Msun/yr starburst for at least ~100 Myr. The 870 micron dust continuum emission is resolved into two components, 1.8 and 2.1 kpc in diameter, separated by 9.0 kpc, with comparable dust luminosities, suggesting an ongoing major merger. The infrared luminosity of L_IR~=2.4×10^13Lsun implies that this system represents a binary hyper-luminous infrared galaxy, the most distant of its kind presently known. This also implies star formation rate surface densities of Sigma_SFR=730 and 750Msun/yr/kpc2, consistent with a binary “maximum starburst”. The discovery of this rare system is consistent with a significantly higher space density than previously thought for the most luminous dusty starbursts within the first billion years of cosmic time, easing tensions regarding the space densities of z~6 quasars and massive quiescent galaxies at z>~3.

The word `riser’ refers to the fact that the measured flux increases with wavelength from the range of wavelengths measured by Herschel/Spire (250 to 500 microns) and up 870 microns. The follow-up observations with higher spectral resolution are based on identifications of carbon monoxide (CO) and water (H20) in the the spectra, which imply the existence of large quantities of gas capable of fuelling an extended period of star formation.

Clearly a lot was going on in this system, a long time ago and a long way away!


Euclid’s Flagship Simulation

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 28, 2017 by telescoper


Credit: J. Carretero/P. Tallada/S. Serrano for ICE/PIC/U.Zurich and the Euclid Consortium Cosmological Simulations Science Working Group.

The above image is taken from the world’s largest simulated galaxy catalogue, which has been constructed to help prepare for the  forthcoming Euclid space mission. The image actually shows only a small part of the full Euclid Flagship mock galaxy catalogue, which contains more than 2 thousand million galaxies distributed over the 3-dimension cosmological volume that Euclid will survey. Synthetic galaxies in this simulation mimic with great detail the complex properties that real sources display: ranging from their shapes, colours, luminosities, and emission lines in their spectra, to the gravitational lensing distortions that affect the light emitted by distant galaxies as it travels to us. The simulation is large enough to allow full `light-cone’ effects to be taken into account, as the look-back time to the edge of the Euclid survey volume is long enough for significant evolution to have occurred; according to the standard cosmological model, the time taken for light to travel from redshift z=2.3 to now is about 10.8 billion years, a significant fraction of the age of the Universe.

`Mock’ catalogues like this are needed to plan large observational programmes, whether using space missions or ground-based facilities, and to help prepare the data analysis strategies and tools needed to deal with the real data when it arrives. They can also be used to make excellent images for PR and outreach purposes.

The use of the word `simulation’ always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:


a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.

3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.

So it’s only the third entry that gives the meaning intended to be conveyed by the usage in the context of cosmological simulations. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory and want to wind up a simulationist!

In football, of course, you can even get sent off for simulation…

LISA gets the go-ahead!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by telescoper

Just taking a short break from examining duties to pass on the news that the European Space Agency has selected the Laser Interferometric Space Experiment (LISA) – a gravitational wave experiment in space – for its large mission L3. This follows the detection of gravitational waves using the ground-based experiment Advanced LIGO and the success of a space-based technology demonstrator mission called Lisa Pathfinder.

LISA consists of a flotilla of three spacecraft in orbit around the Sun forming the arms of an interferometer with baselines of the order of 2.5 million kilometres, much longer than the ~1km arms of Advanced LIGO. These larger dimensions make LISA much more sensitive to long-period signals. Each of the LISA spacecraft contains two telescopes, two lasers and two test masses, arranged in two optical assemblies pointed at the other two spacecraft. This forms Michelson-like interferometers, each centred on one of the spacecraft, with the platinum-gold test masses defining the ends of the arms.

Here’s an artist’s impression of LISA:

This is excellent news for the gravitational waves community, especially since LISA was threatened with the chop when NASA pulled out a few years ago. Space experiments are huge projects – and LISA is more complicated than most – so it will take some time before it actually happens. At the moment, LISA is pencilled in for launch in 2034…