From ESOblog: “Five minutes with Andreas Kaufer”

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From ESOblog

17 January 2020

Andreas Kaufer

ESO’s Director of Operations talks maps, mops and modern technology

From late nights studying sky maps with his grandfather to late nights leaving parties to make observations. From building small instruments for telescopes himself to being part of the construction of the biggest eye on the sky. Andreas Kaufer talks about how astronomy has changed during his career, along with the challenges ahead as the field continues to advance.

Q. What about astronomy first piqued your interest?

A. My grandfather was a big fan of world maps and the last page of world atlases at that time always had a map of the stars. So, one evening, when I was a kid we were looking at the sky and he had one of his big atlases out and we were trying to understand what this white light in the sky was. We couldn’t figure it out because it wasn’t on the map. Eventually, we found out it was a planet which doesn’t appear on a paper map because its position is always changing. We were curious and got some books to read about it and that’s how I first became interested in astronomy. Shortly after I joined a nearby amateur observatory.

But I saw astronomy as a hobby at first, and it was not actually my goal to be a professional astronomer. I only returned to astronomy at the end of my physics studies.

Q. So how did you come back to astronomy?

A. I studied Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, where there was a heavy focus on particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN was really taking off at the time and many of us were getting into particle physics and working on the big experiments there. But there was the option to do an astronomy practicum at the observatory in Heidelberg — so I got back into astronomy.

Cutting through the turbulence
The biggest obstacle in ground based astronomy is the same thing that causes the stars to twinkle — the atmosphere. This romantic effect is due to the distortion of light as it travels through turbulent gases to reach the Earth’s surface. This stunning image shows the scientific solution — the 4 Laser Guide Star Facility on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) [see also below] — here appearing to pierce the side of the Milky Way. The lasers form an integral part of the adaptive optics system on the VLT, by beaming artificial stars into the sky. Astronomers can then use these guide laser stars as reference points, allowing them to correct their observations of true celestial bodies. Credit: F. Kamphues/ESO

I did some stellar atmosphere modelling work on the university’s mainframe computers at a time when this was quite a new thing. At the same time I got into observations because we had some monitoring programmes there at night at the observatory on the Königstuhl. It’s not the best site but when the weather was clear and the city below was under clouds we could observe. But the downside was that when I was on-shift and the weather was clear, I would have to leave parties and movies to go to the observatory in the middle of the night!

Building instruments was my favourite thing. At the amateur observatory, we had to build instruments ourselves because we couldn’t afford to buy such equipment. I was lucky to be able to do it later on a big scale. First at the observatory in Heidelberg, and then later here at ESO where we build instruments on a very big scale, so it’s a dream come true to be here!

Q. How does the Directorate of Operations contribute to ESO’s overall mission?

A. In the Directorate of Operations we take care of the scientific operation of all of ESO’s facilities; this includes all the telescopes and instruments which are built by the organisation and in collaboration with institutes and the industry in our Member States. We maintain the telescopes and instruments at their best possible performance and run the whole system from preparing and executing the observations with our telescopes to delivering the processed data to the scientists. For many observations the scientist do not go to observe onsite anymore but we take their observation at the best possible time for them.

Q. What are some of the most rewarding aspects of the job?

A. For me, the big eye-opener coming to ESO was seeing what all the other scientists are doing. Academia and institutes are usually focused on small areas of science, so people (like me) coming from there are often only exposed to a specific part of astronomy. Then arriving at the observatories, one sees all these ideas; we review about a thousand research proposals to use the telescopes every six months and whilst not all of them are accepted, we see ideas from all areas of ground-based astronomy. Due to my current role, I don’t participate in huge projects anymore, but for me, the reward is to see other people pushing forward diverse and innovative research using ESO facilities.

The satisfaction somehow (which I think is true for many people at ESO) is to enable research. You feel part of these discoveries even if you did not do the science or the analysis yourself. But the telescope and instrument worked in the right way at the right time to get the best possible observations. That for me is still and always will be the motivation: to enable.

Andreas Kaufer mops up a leak from the VLT’s SINFONI instrument. Credit: ESO

Q. And some of the strangest?

A. There is a picture of me with a mop under one of the big telescopes, mopping up some water dripping out of the instrument.

We had a huge leak in a cooling line inside the VLT’s SINFONI instrument. Everybody had to rush, me included, to clean up otherwise the cooling liquid would destroy the oil film on which the telescope rotates. For me this was a natural thing to do, so I was surprised when people were later showing this picture around saying “look the Director has been mopping the telescope!”

Q. What are the challenges you see for the next generation of scientists and engineers in astronomy?

A. As for scientists, we already see that they are becoming more and more disconnected from the data collection by the telescopes, as they often stay at home whilst observatory staff collect the data. Modern scientists are very good at using data from whichever telescopes help them answer their questions, be they space- or ground-based. Given this, we need to ensure that we keep understanding the scientists’ needs, and that we keep adjusting to meet them.

For the engineers, the world of technology is changing very rapidly. At ESO we are already quite advanced in many areas but not in others, so we need to keep an eye open to the advancements happening around us. At Paranal Observatory, we’re working with technologies from when the VLT [below] was built, from the 80s and 90s. The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) [below] — currently under construction — will use much more modern technology. The challenge for our engineers at the observatory is to make this bridge between the different generations of technology and master them all. Those are what I would see as the two big challenges for ESO: Trying to keep our scientific community engaged and staying at the forefront of technology so that we can achieve the best quality science.

Q. What are you looking forward to in astronomy over the next ten years?

A. We are all fascinated by the idea of making progress in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe! But a more realistic goal is continuing our search for exoplanets and to advance on the analysis of their atmospheres.

[Didier Patrick] Queloz and [Michel] Mayor recently together received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the first extrasolar planet orbiting a solar-type star, which they found just when I first got into professional astronomy. This was really an eye-opener. We knew that there must be planets around other stars but when they observed the first one, it was like science fiction becoming reality! That kicked off a whole new field of astronomy and, one generation later, we’ve discovered several hundred planets with our instruments at La Silla Observatory [below]. Furthermore, the VLT has taken many images of planets around stars other than our Sun, and in the next ten years we will be able to use the ELT to look for traces of life in their atmospheres.

A few years ago now, APEX [below] opened up the submillimetre window for the ESO community; at the time we were not sure where submillimetre astronomy would go but now the ALMA [below] partnership is an integral part of ESO. Today, ALMA is the most powerful submillimetre observatory and perfectly complements the most powerful optical observatory on the ground — the VLT.

I’m also looking forward to ESO’s partnership with the Čerenkov Telescope Array (CTA) Observatory. CTA will be an observatory made up of an array of many telescopes that allow us to observe the sky at very high energies by capturing gamma-rays. And ESO will host the southern part of this observatory again opening up a new window to the ESO community!

A novel gamma ray telescope under construction on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. a large project known as the Čerenkov Telescope Array, composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated in the Canary Islands and Chile. The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev

See the full article here .


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ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo,

Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO_s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT, a major asset of the Adaptive Optics system

ESO LaSilla
ESO/Cerro LaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT 4 lasers on Yepun

ESO Vista Telescope
ESO/Vista Telescope at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

ESO/NTT at Cerro LaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT Survey telescope
VLT Survey Telescope at Cerro Paranal with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

ESO APEXESO/MPIfR APEX high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region, at an altitude of over 4,800 m (15,700 ft)at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in the Atacama desert.

A novel gamma ray telescope under construction on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. a large project known as the Čerenkov Telescope Array, composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated in the Canary Islands and Chile. The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev