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  • richardmitnick 1:48 pm on November 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AURA, , How to take pictures of exoplanets,   

    From AURA via The Economist: “How to take pictures of exoplanets” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

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    The Economist

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    Nov 26th 2016
    No writer credit found.

    IN THE quarter of a century since the first extrasolar planets were discovered, astronomers have turned up more than 3,500 others. They are a diverse bunch. Some are baking-hot gas giants that zoom around their host stars in days. Some are entirely covered by oceans dozens of kilometres deep. Some would tax even a science-fiction writer’s imagination. One, 55 Cancri e, seems to have a graphite surface and a diamond mantle. At least, that is what astronomers think. They cannot be sure, because the two main ways exoplanets are detected—by measuring the wobble their gravity causes in their host stars, or by noting the slight decline in a star’s brightness as a planet passes in front of it—yield little detail.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames
    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Using them, astronomers can infer such basics as a planet’s size, mass and orbit. Occasionally, they can interrogate starlight that has traversed a planet’s atmosphere about the chemistry of its air. All else is informed conjecture.

    What would help is the ability to take pictures of planets directly. Such images could let astronomers deduce a world’s surface temperature, analyse what that surface is made from and even—if the world were close enough and the telescope powerful enough—get a rough idea of its geography. Gathering the light needed to create such images is hard. The first picture of an extrasolar world, 2M1207b, 170 light-years away, was snapped in 2004, but the intervening dozen years have seen only a score or so of others join it in the album. That should soon change, though, as new instruments both on the ground and in space add to the tally. And a few of the targets of these telescopes may be the sorts of planets that have the best chance of supporting life, namely Earth-sized worlds at the right distance from sun-like stars, in what are known as those stars’ habitable zones—places where heat from the star might be expected to stop water freezing without actually boiling it.

    Smile, please

    Taking pictures of exoplanets is hard for two reasons. One is their distance. The other is that they are massively outshone by their host stars.

    Interstellar distances do not just make objects faint. They also reduce the apparent gap between a planet and its host, so that it is hard to separate the two in a photograph. Such apparent gaps are measured in units called arc-seconds (an arc-second is a 3,600th of a degree). This is about the size of an American dime seen from four kilometres away. The exoplanet closest to Earth orbits Proxima Centauri, the sun’s stellar neighbour.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker
    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    Yet despite its proximity (4.25 light-years) the angular gap between this planet and its star is a mere 0.038 arc-seconds, according to Beth Biller, an exoplanet specialist at the University of Edinburgh. Separating objects which appear this close together requires a pretty big telescope.

    The second problem, glare, is best dealt with by inserting an opaque disc called a coronagraph into a telescope’s optics.

    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT, Cerro Paranal, Chile
    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT, Cerro Paranal, Chile

    A coronagraph’s purpose is to block light coming directly from a star while permitting any that is reflected from planets orbiting that star to shine through. This palaver is necessary because, as a common analogy puts it, photographing an exoplanet is like trying to take a picture, from thousands of kilometres away, of a firefly buzzing around a lighthouse. Seen from outside the solar system, Earth would appear to be a ten-billionth as bright as the sun.

    Those exoplanets that have had their photographs taken so far are ones for which these problems are least troublesome—gigantic orbs (which thus reflect a lot of light) circling at great distances (maximising angular separation) from dim hosts (minimising glare). In addition, these early examples of planetary photography have usually involved young worlds that are still slightly aglow with the heat of their formation. Even then, serious hardware is required. For example, four giant planets circling a star called HR8799 were snapped between 2008 and 2010 by the Keck and Gemini telescopes on Hawaii (see picture).

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    Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Keck Observatory Interior
    Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    Gemini/North telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Gemini North Interior
    Gemini/North telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    These instruments have primary mirrors that are, respectively, ten metres and 8.1 metres across. The good news for planet-snappers is that such giant telescopes are becoming more common, and that people are building special planet-photographing cameras to fit on them.

    At the moment, the three most capable are the Gemini Planet Imager, attached to the southern Gemini telescope, in Chile; the Spectro-Polarimetric High-Contrast Exoplanet Research Instrument on the Very Large Telescope, a European machine also in Chile; and the Subaru Coronagraphic Extreme Adaptive Optics Device on the Subaru telescope, a Japanese machine on Hawaii.

    NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South
    NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South

    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile

    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT, Cerro Paranal, Chile
    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT, Cerro Paranal, Chile

    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, Chile
    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, Chile

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    Picture of SCExAO installed on the IR Nasmyth platform of the Subaru Telescope. SCExAO sits between the facility Adaptive Optics system called AO188 . Frantz Martinache

    NAOJ/Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea Hawaii, USA
    NAOJ Subaru Telescope interior
    NAOJ/Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea Hawaii, USA

    All of those telescopes sport a mirror more than eight metres across, making them some of the biggest in the world, and their planet-photographing attachments are fitted with the most sophisticated coronagraphs available. The result is that the Subaru device, for example, can take pictures of giant planets that orbit their stars slightly closer in than Jupiter orbits the sun.

    This improved sensitivity will let astronomers take pictures of many more worlds. The Gemini Planet Imager, for instance, is looking for planets around 600 promising stars. (Its first discovery was announced in August 2015.) But even these behemoths will still be limited to photographing gas giants. To take snaps of the next-smallest class of planets (so-called “ice giants” like Neptune and Uranus), and the class after that (large, rocky planets called “super-Earths” that have no analogue in the solar system), will require even more potent instruments.

    These are coming. The European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently under construction in the Chilean mountains.

    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile
    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile

    Its 39.3 metre mirror will be nearly four times the diameter of the present record-holder, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, in the Canary Islands, which has a mirror 10.4 metres across.

    Gran Telescopio  Canarias at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma, in the Canaries, Spain
    Gran Telescopio Canarias at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma, in the Canaries, Spain

    When it is finished, in 2024, the ELT should be sensitive enough to photograph Proxima Centauri’s planet, as well as other rocky ones around nearby stars. A smaller instrument, with a 24.5 metre mirror, the Giant Magellan Telescope, should be finished in 2021.

    Giant Magellan Telescope, Las Campanas Observatory, to be built  some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile
    Giant Magellan Telescope, Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile

    The Thirty Metre Telescope, planned for Hawaii, will, as its name suggests, fall somewhere between those two—though its construction has been halted by legal arguments.

    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    For ground-based telescopes that may be the end of the line, says Matt Mountain, who is president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and who oversaw the construction of the Gemini telescopes. The shifting currents of Earth’s atmosphere (the reason stars seem to twinkle even to the naked eye) impose limits on how good they can ever be as planetary cameras. To get around those limits means going into space. Although it is not specifically designed for the job, the James Webb space telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018 and which boasts both a mirror 6.5 metres across and a reasonably capable coronagraph, should be able to snap pictures of some large, nearby worlds.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated
    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    It will be able to sniff the atmospheres of many more, analysing starlight that has passed through those atmospheres on its way to Earth. WFIRST, a space telescope due to launch in the mid-2020s, will have picture-taking capabilities of its own, and will serve to test the latest generation of coronagraphs.

    NASA/WFIRST
    NASA/WFIRST

    After that, astronomers who want to picture truly Earth-like worlds are pinning their hopes on a set of ambitious missions which, for now, exist only as proposal documents in NASA’s in-tray. One of the most intriguing is the New Worlds Mission. This hopes to launch a giant occulter (in effect, an external coronagraph) that would fly in formation with an existing space telescope (probably the James Webb) to boost its exoplanet-imaging prowess.

    Small is beautiful

    There may, though, be an alternative to this big-machine approach. That is the belief of the members of a team of researchers led by Jon Morse, formerly director of astrophysics at NASA. Project Blue, as this team calls itself, hopes, using a mixture of private grants, taxpayers’ money and donations from the public, to pay for a space telescope costing $50m (as opposed, for example, to the $9 billion budgeted for the James Webb) that would try to take pictures of any Earth-like exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri A—the closest sun-like star to Earth, and a big brother to Proxima Centauri.

    Alpha Centauri is hotter than Proxima, which means its habitable zone is much further away. That, combined with its closeness, means Project Blue can get away with a mirror between 30 and 45cm across—the size of mirror an enthusiastic amateur might have in his telescope. What such an amateur would not have, though, is a computer-run “multi-star wavefront controlled” mirror. This will draw on a technology already fitted to ground-based telescopes, called adaptive optics, in which portions of the mirror are subtly deformed in order to sculpt incoming light.

    In combination with a coronagraph the wavefront controller will, according to Supriya Chakrabarti of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, let the telescope blot out the light not only of Alpha Centauri A, but also of Alpha Centauri B, a companion even closer to it than Proxima Centauri is. Moreover, the plan is to take thousands of pictures over the course of several years. By combining these and looking for persistent signals—particularly ones that appear to follow plausible orbits—computers should be able to pluck any planets from the noise.

    If it works, Alpha Centauri A’s closeness means Project Blue’s telescope could reveal lots of information about any planets orbiting that star (and statistical analysis of known exoplanets suggests there will almost certainly be some). Examining the spectrum of light from them would reveal what their atmospheres and surfaces were made from, including any chemicals—such as oxygen and methane—that might suggest the presence of life. It might even be possible to detect vegetation, or its alien equivalent, directly. The length of a planet’s day could be inferred by watching for regular changes in light as its revolution about its axis caused continents and seas to become alternately visible and invisible. Longer-term variations might reveal planetary seasons; shorter-term, more chaotic ones might be evidence of weather.

    If they can raise the money in time, the Project Blue team hope to launch their telescope in 2019 or 2020. Being able to take a picture of a rocky planet around one of the sun’s nearest neighbours would be an enormous scientific prize. If a habitable planet were found, it would be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century. Donors may think that worth a punt.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of 42 US institutions and 5 international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA’s role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce. AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities.

    Our mission

    “To promote excellence in astronomical research by providing access to information about the universe from state-of-the-art facilities, surveys, and archives”

    Our facilities

    Gemini Observatory
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini/North telescope at Manua Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Gemini/North telescope at Manua Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST Interior
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO)
    National Solar Observatory (NSO)
    National Solar Observatory
    National Solar Observatory
    Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

     
  • richardmitnick 10:37 am on October 8, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AURA, , Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope,   

    From AURA via Honolulu Star Advertiser: “Haleakala solar telescope approvals upheld by courts” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

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    Honolulu Star Advertiser

    October 6, 2016
    Nelson Daranciang

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    This Dec. 3, 2015 photo shows the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, formely known as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope on Haleakala on Maui. INSTITUTE FOR ASTRONOMY

    Two opinions handed down by the Hawaii Supreme Court today uphold government approvals for a new solar telescope atop Haleakala.

    The court ruled that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources followed proper procedure in granting the University of Hawaii a permit to construct an Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, now known as the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, on Maui. The court also ruled that the management plan UH submitted to the BLNR with its permit application didn’t need an environmental impact statement.

    The group Kilakila O Haleakala had challenged BLNR’s approval of the management plan and permit.

    Last year, eight people were arrested when protesters tried to stop a construction convoy heading to the solar telescope site. Kahele Dukelow, one of the protest leaders, said opponents are disappointed and considering what their next steps will be. “We only have one alternative now,” she said. “We have to continue to protest in other ways.”

    They hoped the decision would be similar to the court’s ruling last year that invalidated a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea.

    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    TMT-Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed for Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    That project has been the focus of more intense protests. Opposition to both telescopes cite concerns that the projects will desecrate sacred land.

    State Attorney General Doug Chin said his office will look into whether the rulings have any impact on future matters before the state land board, including the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    Attorneys representing the group that challenged the solar telescope’s permit, Kilakila O Haleakala, didn’t immediately comment. Officials with the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope also didn’t immediately comment.

    “We are still reviewing the full decisions, but we look forward to ‘first light’ when the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope will open a new era of discovery, here in Hawaii, about the sun and its daily impacts on all life on Earth,” university President David Lassner said in a statement.

    External construction of the Maui telescope is complete, with only internal work remaining, according to the university. The $340-million project is scheduled to be operational in 2019. Construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope remains stalled pending a new contested case hearing scheduled to begin later this month.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of 42 US institutions and 5 international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA’s role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce. AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities.

    Our mission

    “To promote excellence in astronomical research by providing access to information about the universe from state-of-the-art facilities, surveys, and archives”

    Our facilities

    Gemini Observatory
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini/North telescope at Manua Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Gemini/North telescope at Manua Kea, Hawaii, USA
    Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST Interior
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO)
    National Solar Observatory (NSO)
    National Solar Observatory
    National Solar Observatory
    Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

     
  • richardmitnick 12:07 pm on April 30, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , AURA, , , U Portsmouth   

    From U Portsmouth via AURA: “University of Portsmouth support groundbreaking telescope” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

    U Portsmouth bloc

    28th Apr 2016
    Jeeves Williams

    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    LSST Interior
    LSST/Camera, built at SLAC
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile; LSST/Camera, built at SLAC

    The University of Portsmouth have become one of the latest supporters of a new telescope which is being built to produce movies of the sky.

    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will produce the widest, deepest, and fastest views of the night sky ever observed when it launches in 2021.

    Currently under construction in Chile, the LSST will take more than 800 panoramic images each night with its 3.2billion pixel camera, recording the entire southern sky twice each week.

    Professor Bob Nichol, Director of the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG), said: “This new telescope will be located on a mountain-top site in the foothills of the Andes and over a 10-year time frame will capture tens of billions of objects in unprecedented detail.

    “It will allow us to find hundreds of thousands more supernova than have ever been detected to date, and millions of asteroids. It’s a pioneering project which will produce data like we’ve never seen before, so I’m delighted that Portsmouth is on board.”

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    The El Peñón summit, site for the LSST, at dusk

    The universities of Portsmouth and Oxford are the only two UK institutional members of the LSST Corporation, which is primarily supported by the US National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy.

    Academics from the ICG are involved with the preparation of the telescope at this stage, locating where in the sky it should observe and how often.

    Professor Nichol said: “What’s so awesome about this project is its ability to access — for the first time — moving images of the night sky. In the past you could miss a supernova if you weren’t looking in the right direction at the right time. This survey will offer 100 times the amount of data we’ve had access to previously.

    “It’s the next big thing in astronomy and the challenge will be sieving through all the data and finding out about the things we already know we don’t know — the known unknowns — but also finding the unknown unknowns — the things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    The LSST will be able to image 10 square degrees of sky in one shot, or 40 times the size of the full moon. Each of its 30-second observations will be able to detect objects ten-million times fainter than visible with the human eye.

    The LSST data will be used to locate the baffling substance of dark matter and explore the mysterious force of dark energy, which makes up the bulk of the universe and is causing its expansion to speed up.

    U Portsmouth campus
    U Portsmouth campus

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on August 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , AURA, ,   

    From AURA: “The UK in DKIST” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

    UK Solar Physics

    August 17, 2015
    Lyndsay Fletcher University of Glasgow
    Mihalis Mathioudakis Queen’s University Belfast
    Erwin Verwichte University of Warwick
    On behalf of the UK DKIST consortium members.

    Introduction

    The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope [DKIST] is a 4m ground-based solar telescope currently under construction on the Haleakala mountain on the island of Maui, Hawai’i. It will be the largest solar telescope in the world by some way, with a diffraction limit a factor 3 smaller than that of any existing solar telescope. The UK has now joined the DKIST project, providing the cameras for four of the DKIST instruments. The UK DKIST consortium is financed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, 8 UK universities, and Andor Technology plc. This nugget gives an overview of the DKIST, the UK’s contribution, and the opportunities for all UK solar physicists to get involved.

    DKIST telescope
    DKIST

    The DKIST is led by the US National Solar Observatory (NSO) with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It will operate in the optical and near-infrared and will be the pre-eminent ground-based solar telescope for the foreseeable future. Its adaptive optics will enable diffraction-limited observations with a spatial resolution of 25 km, less than the photon scattering mean-free path in the photosphere — a fundamental physical scale in the visible. It is located at an altitude of 3,000 m on Haleakala, Hawaii, giving the very low scattered light necessary for coronal studies. The DKIST first light will be in 2019, and it will serve the solar physics community to 2050 and beyond.

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    Fig 1: The main structural elements of the DKIST dome being installed; the basket on the crane gives an idea of the scale. Source NSO/DKIST.

    The DKIST’s main science goals are:

    What are the building blocks of solar magnetism?
    How is magnetic energy built up, released and transported in flares and CMEs?
    What is the origin of solar variability?

    The key advances in the DKIST’s first-light instruments, which will be used to address these questions, are ultra-high spatial resolution (25 km) and ultra-high time cadence (10’s of ms) imaging, high resolution photospheric and chromospheric imaging spectroscopy and vector magnetometry, plus infrared coronal magnetometry.

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    Fig 2: The chromosphere in He 304 from AIA at 1.2″ resolution (right) and the same view in H-alpha from IBIS equipped with a ROSA camera (left) at 0.25″ spatial resolution (click for full resolution). The improvement in spatial resolution offered by DKIST will be about the same again. Image credit: Kevin Reardon PhD (NSO/QUB).

    As a highly sophisticated facility, DKIST will normally be operated in service mode by expert astronomers on behalf of the PIs of observing proposals – like a ‘spacecraft on the ground’. The telescope has five first-generation instruments: VBI -the Visible Broadband Imager; VTF – the Visible Tunable Filter; ViSP – the Visible Spectro-Polarimeter; DL-NIRSP -the Diffraction Limited Near Infra-Red Spectro-Polarimeter and Cryo-NIRSP the Cryogenic Near Infra-Red Spectro-Polarimeter. The first light instrument will be the VBI, for which the UK’s ROSA imager is the prototype. Light from the primary can be shared between the first four of the five listed instruments simultaneously, allowing enormous flexibility in operations and thus science investigations. The Cryo-NIRSP instrument focuses on diagnostics of the faint corona, and will observe by itself, taking advantage of an unobstructed aperture and best coronal seeing conditions. Full details of the instruments can be found here.

    The UK Consortium

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    Fig 3: The UK DKIST consortium institutes

    The UK DKIST consortium is led by Queen’s University Belfast, and involves 7 other institutes (Armagh, Glasgow, MSSL, Northumbria, Sheffield, St. Andrews and Warwick). Finance for the consortium has been provided by the STFC, by the UK institutes involved, and Andor Technology plc who are investing internal resources in the camera development. The consortium will provide 9 identical cameras for four instruments on the DKIST, and in return the UK will have some guaranteed access time to the DKIST (in addition to competitively awarded open time). The consortium will also develop and implement aspects of the data analysis toolkit and help members of the UK community become involved with the DKIST science plan, and preparation of observations.

    How to get involved

    The UK DKIST consortium was formed for the benefit of the whole UK Solar Physics Community; it is not necessary to be working at one of the Consortium institutes to propose for observing time. However, the Consortium does aim to co-ordinate UK activities in DKIST, and to provide assistance with understanding the telescope, the instruments, and the process of preparing a proposal. There are two main ways that you can currently get involved;

    Contribute data processing, analysis or forward-modelling software (contact Erwin Verwichte)
    Contribute to the DKIST Critical Science Plan, and propose for observations (contact Lyndsay Fletcher)

    Some of the DKIST’s science topics are described in the science cases. The UK DKIST consortium will be adopting the process for developing DKIST proposals outlined in the critical science plan.
    Conclusions

    The DKIST is an exciting new facility that will address many science questions of interest to the UK solar community. It will be able to work in co-ordination with ESA’s Solar Orbiter, though this will take very careful planning. We encourage the UK community to start developing their ideas for ground-breaking new science with the DKIST.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 7:49 am on July 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , AURA, , HDST   

    From AURA: “AURA Releases Study of Future Space Telescope” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

    July 6, 2015
    Contacts:
    Dr. Marc Postman
    Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
    410-340-7533
    postman@stsci.edu

    Prof. Sara Seager
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    617-253-6775
    seager@mit.edu

    Prof. Julianne Dalcanton
    University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
    206-619-1959
    jd@astro.washington.edu

    Dr. Heidi Hammel
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
    202-483-2101
    hbhammel@aura-astronomy.org

    ASTRONOMERS ENVISION A ‘HIGH-DEFINITION HUBBLE’ TO LOOK FOR LIFE BEYOND EARTH

    Over the past two decades, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other powerful observatories have collectively made extraordinary breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe: from black holes, to dark energy, to extrasolar planets, and cosmic evolution.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Despite these breathtaking advances, humanity’s most compelling questions remain unanswered: Are we alone in the universe? Or, are other inhabited Earth-like worlds common in our galaxy? What’s more, how did life emerge from a chaotic cosmic beginning?

    A new study issued today by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), based in Washington, D.C., describes a visionary, innovative, and revolutionary path forward to answering these and other timeless questions that are considered game-changers in our understanding of our place in the cosmos.

    “When we imagine the landscape of astronomy in the decade of 2030, we realize it is at last within our grasp to make a monumental discovery that will change mankind forever. We hope to learn whether or not we are alone in the universe,” said AURA President Matt Mountain.

    AURA spearheaded the study of space-based options for ultraviolet (UV) and optical astronomy in the era following the James Webb Space Telescope’s mission (planned for launch in 2018).

    NASA Webb Telescope
    NASA/Webb

    AURA brought together a team of research scientists, astronomers, and technologists to assess a future space observatory that can significantly advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of the cosmos and whether extraterrestrial life is an integral part of cosmic history.

    The AURA report describes the scientific and technological case for building a “super-Hubble” space telescope that would view the universe with five times greater sharpness than Hubble can achieve, and as much as 100 times more sensitivity than Hubble to extraordinarily faint starlight.

    These powerful capabilities would allow the observatory, called the High Definition Space Telescope (HDST), to look for signs of life on an estimated several dozen Earth-like planets in our stellar neighborhood. It could provide the first observational evidence for life beyond Earth.

    The scientific research enabled by the Hubble Space Telescope has had a profound and revolutionizing impact on most areas of astronomy over the past 25 years.

    Similarly, as a general-user space observatory, the HSDT would engage the world’s best and brightest scientists to make transformational advances in astronomy across a wide swath of research areas, from the solar system, to stellar evolution, to the farthest observable horizon of the universe. No doubt, unexpected and profound discoveries are in store, as happened with Hubble.

    Though the report does not address a specific design for the HDST, its mirror would have to be at least 12 meters (39 feet) across to conduct a robust survey of nearby habitable planets. This would be accomplished by combining up to 54 mirror segments together to form a giant aperture. The construction of the Webb telescope’s 18-mirror mosaic provides an important engineering pathway to demonstrating proof-of-concept for this type of space observatory architecture.

    The HDST would be located at the Sun-Earth Lagrange 2 point, a gravitationally stable “parking lot” in space located 1 million miles from Earth. The telescope would have a suite of instruments: cameras, spectrographs, and a coronagraph for blocking out a star’s blinding glare so that any dim, accompanying planets can be directly imaged. The construction would be modular so that astronauts or robots could swap out instruments and other subsystems. As with Hubble, this would ensure an operational lifetime spanning decades.

    The motive for the HDST is driven in part by the discoveries of NASA’s prolific planet hunter, the Kepler space observatory.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    Kepler’s discovery of over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets provides a statistical database that predict Earth-like worlds should be common in our galaxy, and hence nearby to us and within observational reach of the HDST.

    A 12-meter-diameter space telescope outfitted with a coronagraph could look for planets around an estimated 600 stars within 100 light-years of Earth. The Kepler statistics predict that 10 percent of nearby stars would host Earth-sized planets within the habitable zones of their stars, where temperatures are optimum for life, as we know it.

    The HDST would spectroscopically characterize the atmospheres of these planets. The abundance of water vapor, oxygen, methane, and other organic compounds in the atmosphere could be evidence of an active biosphere on the surface of a planet.

    Looking far beyond our local stellar neighborhood, the HDST would search for the origins of the chemistry of life in an evolving universe. The super-telescope’s UV sensitivity would be used to map the distribution of hot gases far outside the perimeter of galaxies. This would show the structure of the so-called “cosmic web” that galaxies are embedded inside, and how chemically enriched gases flow in and out of a galaxy to fuel star formation.

    The HDST’s unexcelled sharpness at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths would allow astronomers to see the stellar and nebulous contents of galaxies billions of light-years away with the same crispness that Hubble sees inside galaxies just tens of millions of light-years away. The HDST could pick out stars like our Sun located 30 million light-years away! A sharp view of visible contents of the entire universe would immediately become accessible to us via this super-Hubble’s “high-definition” vision.

    Within our own solar system, HDST would provide images of weather and surfaces on the outer planets and their moons far beyond today’s capabilities. HDST would also provide detailed data on the interaction of each of the outer planets with the solar wind and give planetary scientists the ability to search for remote, hidden members of our solar system ranging in size from dwarf planets to ice giants like Neptune.

    Though such a telescope is envisioned for the 2030s, it is not too early to start planning the science needs and technological requirements. Planning for the Hubble Space Telescope began in the 1970s, two decades before its launch. In addition, concept studies for the Webb telescope began two decades ago.

    The HDST is needed to complement the powerful capabilities of a new generation of ground-based telescopes. Planned for the early 2020s are behemoth visible-infrared observatories, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope, the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope, and a planned Giant Magellan Telescope. Already in operation is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in northern Chile.

    TMT
    TMT

    ESO E-ELT
    ESO/E-ELT

    Giant Magellan Telescope
    Giant Magellan Telescope

    ALMA Array
    ALMA

    The HDST would be able to study extremely faint objects that are 10 to 20 times dimmer than anything that could be seen from the ground with the planned large, ground-based telescopes. It could also observe ultraviolet wavelengths that are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. The large ground-based telescopes, in turn, would be as good or better than HDST for measuring the spectra of objects. The HDST would have comparable clarity at UV/optical wavelengths as the giant ground-based telescopes get in the near infrared and as ALMA gets at millimeter wavelengths. This would allow astronomers to obtain incredibly clear views of the cosmos over a very broad electromagnetic spectral range.

    “The monumental endeavor of building the HDST is going to take a continuing partnership between NASA, science, technology, and U.S. and international space missions to build the next bridge to humanity’s future,” Mountain said.

    AURA is a consortium of 40 U.S. institutions and four international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA’s role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce.

    AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities, which include many ground-based telescopes as well as the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland (STScI). STScI conducts the science mission for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, will conduct the science mission for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and the proposed Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope. STScI also houses the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), a NASA-funded project to support the astronomical community with a variety of astronomical data archives.

    Access the full report and graphics at: http://www.hdstvision.org

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 9:41 am on May 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Arizona Daily Star, , AURA, ,   

    From Arizona Daily Star via AURA: “Local astronomers watch our dangerous sun” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

    Temp 1

    1
    A coronal mass ejection, associated with a solar flare, blew out from just around the edge of the sun on May 1, 2013. Solar Dynamics Observatory [SDO] spacecraft, NASA

    NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory
    SDO

    April 25, 2015
    Dan Desrochers

    Matt Penn is, in some ways, a solar weatherman.

    Penn, an associate astronomer with the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, researches and observes sunspots and solar flares. Part of his work involves predicting when a flare might occur.

    “We have this overall rough picture,” Penn said. “Sort of like meteorologists had before the Space Age.”

    Penn’s challenge is to increase the ability to tell when a solar flare will happen and who will be affected, kind of like how meteorologists can predict when and where a hurricane will hit. He’s trying to do this through studying changes in the sun’s magnetic field and looking at the patterns of flares to determine when one might happen.

    “What we’d like to say is at 11:15 we’re going to have a flare, and it’s going to have a CME (coronal mass ejection) of a certain size,” Penn said. “We can’t do that yet.”

    That ability to predict solar events is important. In March, NASA space weather scientists warned that a coronal mass ejection could cause communication disruptions, along with auroras, as far south as Oklahoma.

    The geomagnetic storm caused by this particular CME was weaker than predicted, but warning is critical. A direct hit from a large coronal mass ejection could cripple communication and power systems.

    A solar flare contains two parts. The first, the solar flare itself, is a brightening where the flare emits X-rays and gamma rays. Those are just a form of electromagnetic radiation, and while they can affect people and objects in space, they don’t affect us on Earth because the atmosphere protects us.

    The solar flare is followed, in 90 percent of cases, by a coronal mass ejection. That’s where things on Earth can get weird.

    “Imagine like a slinky, and both ends of the slinky are rooted in the sun,” said Joe Giacalone, an astrophysicist and the assistant head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Sciences, “Then the thing continually expands out.”

    The coronal mass ejection is a bunch of magnetized plasma — shot out from the sun.

    “You need to have the material, the magnetic field and the plasma of the sun work its way out at high speeds and smash into the Earth,” Giacalone said. “That’s the coronal mass ejection that does that.”

    When that mass hits the Earth, the Earth’s magnetic field gets shaken a little bit. That can cause beautiful images, like the Aurora Borealis, but it can also cause damage to transformers, GPS systems and communication devices. It can cause problems for banks, electric companies and TV providers. And all this can cost companies money.

    “A chunk of the sun is coming off,” Giacalone said. “A big piece of mass is coming off the sun and entrained in the magnetic field.”

    In 1859, one of the biggest and most famous flares caused the Carrington event, where a coronal mass ejection caused huge currents in telegraph lines and fires in telegraph offices.

    More recently, a geomagnetic storm caused widespread, nine-hour blackouts in Quebec in 1989, when currents generated by a coronal mass ejection blew the circuits on the local power grid.

    “Anytime you vary the magnetic field of the Earth — those variations can produce currents, and currents that primarily run through the ground,” Giacalone said.

    The North American Electric Reliability Corp., an international regulatory agency, sets procedures for monitoring and responding to geomagnetic storms.

    Locally, utility companies such as Tucson Electric Power Co. are more focused on power outages from Earth-based weather. TEP has a variety of methods to get its equipment up and running, spokesman Joseph Barrios said.

    “Of all the things that affect our system and reliability and the service we provide to customers,” Barrios said, “solar flares aren’t at the top of our list.”

    Solar flares can occur anytime but are more likely to occur when the sun is at the maximum range of its 11-year cycle of activity, as it is now.

    This particular “solar max,” however, has been particularly mild, Penn said.

    “It’s about half the strength in terms of the number of sun spots as the last cycle,” Penn said.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:23 pm on August 4, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , AURA, , ,   

    From AURA: “AURA Awarded Support by the National Science Foundation To Begin Constructing LSST” 

    AURA Icon
    Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

    August 4, 2014

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) agreed on Friday to support the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) to manage the construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

    LSST Telescope
    LSST

    This marks the official federal start of the LSST project, the top-ranked major ground-based facility recommended by the National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics decadal survey committee in its 2010 report, New Worlds, New Horizons. It is being carried out as an NSF and Department of Energy (DOE) partnership, with NSF responsible for the telescope and site, education & outreach, and the data management system, and DOE providing the camera and related instrumentation. Both agencies expect to support post-construction operation of the observatory.

    The NSF construction budget for LSST is not to exceed $473M. The DOE Camera fabrication budget will be baselined later this year, but is estimated to be $165M. Operations costs will be around $40M per year for the ten-year survey. With the approved start occurring now, LSST will see first light in 2019 and begin full science operations in 2022. Today’s action culminates over ten years of developing, planning and reviewing of the LSST concept.

    LSST Project Manager, Victor Krabbendam, was delighted to receive the welcome news from NSF: “This agreement is a tribute to the hard work of an exceptional team of highly skilled individuals, many of whom have dedicated more than a decade to bringing LSST to this point. After a rigorous design and development phase, the project team is ready to get down and dirty and actually build this amazing facility.”

    LSST Director, Steven Kahn of Stanford University, commented on the unique contributions LSST will make to astronomy and fundamental physics: “The broad range of science enabled by the LSST survey will change our understanding of the dynamic Universe on timescales ranging from its earliest moments after the Big Bang to the motions of asteroids in the solar system today. The open nature of our data products means that the public will have the opportunity to share in this exciting adventure along with the scientific community. The most exciting discoveries will probably be those we haven’t yet even envisioned!”

    William Smith, the President AURA, expressed his enthusiasm for AURA’s role in the Project: “AURA is proud to provide management for the construction of LSST, an activity clearly aligned with our mission to promote excellence in astronomical research by providing access to state-of-the-art facilities. Joining the Space Telescope Science Institute, the National Solar Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and the Gemini Telescope as AURA Centers, LSST is a new paradigm in ground-based astronomy that will revolutionize both our cosmic knowledge and the open and collaborative methods of acquiring that knowledge.”

    By digitally imaging the sky for a decade, the LSST will produce a petabyte-scale database enabling new paradigms of knowledge discovery for transformative STEM education. LSST will address the most pressing questions in astronomy and physics, which are driving advances in big data science and computing. LSST is not “just another telescope” but a truly unique discovery engine.

    The early development of LSST was supported by the LSST Corporation (LSSTC), a non-profit consortium of universities and other research institutions. Fabrication of the major mirror components is already underway, thanks to private funding received from the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Foundation for Arts and Sciences, Bill Gates, and other individuals. Receipt of federal construction funds allows major contracts to move forward, including those to build the telescope mount assembly, the figuring of the secondary mirror, the summit facility construction, the focal plane sensors, and the camera lenses.

    LSST’s construction funding will be provided through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities (MREFC) account. LSST passed its NSF Final Design Review in December of 2013; the National Science Board gave the NSF conditional approval to move the project to construction status in May of 2014. On the DOE side, LSST received Critical Decision-1 approval (CD-1) in 2011 and also just received CD-3a approval, which allows the project to move forward with long-lead procurements. The CD-2 review will take place the first week in November, with approval expected shortly afterward, formally fixing the baseline budget for completion of the camera project. The Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5), an advisory subpanel of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), recommended last month that DOE move forward with LSST under all budget scenarios, even the most pessimistic.

    The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of 39 US institutions and 6 international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA’s role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce. AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities: http://www.aura-astronomy.org

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