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Event Coverage

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Read daily updates from the event below:

Thursday 5 July

Wednesday 4 July

Tuesday 3 July

Monday 2 July

Sunday 1 July


View slides from the plenary talks, on the SPIE Newsroom.

See more photos in the event photo gallery.

Follow the conversation on Twitter: #SPIEastronomy

Thursday 5 July


Thursday plenary talk: Tracking the night sky

Planned satellite array

Thijs de Graauw from the ALMA Observatory presented the latest results and future plans for a truly international project that has incredible promise for the efficacy of ground-based telescope arrays. The goal is quite comprehensive: “ALMA will provide the astronomical community with a sub(mm) facility with a wide range of capabilities to address key questions in all types of astronomy… with Hubble-type detail…over wide bandwidths, with great sensitivity and fidelity.”

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is under construction in the Atacama region of northern Chile, at 5000 meters elevation and the plan is to have an array of 66 antennas in ‘aperture synthesis’ as a giant, ground-based, ‘zoom-telescope’. After 10 years of planning and development, the ALMA array became operational in September of 2011 and the full scope should be in place by the end of 2013.

The ground-based ALMA array exceeds the Hubble in terms of angle resolution and depth, and when the full ALMA array is completed its vision will be up to ten times sharper than Hubble. All the Alma antennas will be equipped with sensitive sub-millimeter-wave receivers covering most of the frequency range from 35 to 950 GHz., but the key is the synchronization between the array.

ALMA is the largest telescopic system on the planet at one of the highest observatory points. This project is supported by an international community from Europe, North America, in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. The remote control station is currently under construction and everything is on track for the full launch in 2013.


'Dark holes' for imaging

Among technical talks, in paper 8447-72 Ben Oppenheimer (American Museum of Natural History Department of Astrophysics) presented images demonstrating a new technique that creates extremely precise "dark holes" around stars of interest, in his report on Project 1640. The system works on an advanced telescope imaging system that started taking data last month, and is the first of its kind capable of spotting planets orbiting suns outside of our solar system. The collaborative set of high-tech instrumentation and software operates on the Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California after more than six years of development by researchers and engineers at the museum, the California Institute of Technology, and the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).


The one that counts

Attendance and energy have been strong all week in technical sessions, the record-setting exhibition, and networking events. Session chair Richard Green (University of Arizona) summed up the perspective of many attendees, saying "SPIE is the society that counts for us in this field."

Wednesday 4 July


Wednesday plenary talks: Imaging the cosmos

The Wednesday plenary session featured a technical talk by Werner Hofmann from Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik that highlighted some of the latest research in gamma ray detection at the High-Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) project in Namibia. Very High Energy (VHE) gamma rays cannot be produced in thermal processes, rather they are produced in the interaction of high-energy particles. Gamma rays, therefore are an important way to allow imaging of "cosmic particle accelerators." These can include supernova remnants, pulsars, pulsar wind nebulae, and binary systems, as well as starburst galaxies, radio galaxies and blazars.

The HESS project has effectively demonstrated that these types of gamma ray emitters are ubiquitous in the galaxy and beyond. The other thing that is significant about these gamma ray emitters is that are inherently huge. They are enormous events and projects like HESS are the best way to image their full magnitude. Currently HESS II is nearing completion and is anticipating 'first light' later this month. More information is available on their website: http://www.mpi-hd.mpg.de/hfm/HESS/.

The second speaker was Paolo De Bernardis, from Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza." De Bernardis's work focuses on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is a relic of the very early universe; less than four nanoseconds after the Big Bang. The CMB is observed by means of microwave and mm-wave telescopes, and its measurements drove the development of ultra-sensitive bolometric detectors, sophisticated modulators, and advanced cryogenic and space technologies. The primary goal, however is directly imaging the early universe to gain insights into the formations that preceded the structures that we see now.

One of the major challenges to continue the effective exploration of CMB is developing the most sophisticated detectors and detector arrays. Ground-based, near-space, and space-based arrays are needed to get the most accurate data. One of the fairly recent developments is the spider-web bolometer which is a highly effective absorber for mm-wave photons.

Effective mapping has been recorded by the BOOMERANG project, a balloon-borne microwave telescope designed to map the cosmic microwave background, and ESA's Planck experiment is a space-based mission to measure the fluctuations of the CMB with unprecedented accuracy. So, the future of CMB analysis is developing, but there will continue to be an ongoing demand for enhanced instrumentation design, array development, and coordination between related projects to share information about this import study of the origins of the universe.


Saluting the visionaries

Approximately 150 people attended the conference dinner at the Grand Hotel Krasnapolky, and enjoyed an entertaining presentation by Jason Spyromillo of the European Southern Observatory.  After joking that telescopes are planned by dreamers and then attempted to be built by the engineers, Spyromillo offered a sincere tribute to the first visionaries of the field who dreamed of putting together large telescopes that are now being built. He concluded with a toast to his nomination for current visionary, Kavli Prize winner Jerry Nelson, founding Director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at University of California, Santa Cruz.

 Tuesday 3 July


Thomas Gautier JPEG

Tuesday plenary talks: Kepler -- and Antarctica!

Thomas (Nick) Gautier, above, (Jet Propulsion Lab) gave a review of the Kepler Exoplanet Survey -- an Earth-trailing heliocentric space telescope that uses the transit method to identify potential exoplanets. The transit method involves looking for planetary shadows on distant stars, and is subject to varying degrees of certainty as the team tries to confirm planetary 'candidates' as true planets. The Kepler Mission has been operating for 3 years and has so far identified 2,321 exoplanet candidates and confirmed 61, based on a 99% reliability metric.

There are many variables that come into play with this kind of astronomical search, including imaging noise, orbital path, and planetary size. These are the primary reasons that all of the confirmed exoplanets are larger than the Earth. Gautier explained that most Sun-like stars are much noisier than the Sun on transit timescales, so it is difficult to image Earth-size planets with certainty.

Of the confirmed exoplanets, there are many which are considered to be in a habitable zone, and the Kepler mission has also discovered several multi-planetary systems. As was noted in the Monday plenary session, these 'exo' solar system structures are different from our own in that the planetary scale is not graduated. Distant solar systems can have multiple planets that vary in size without a direct correlation between planet mass and distance from their star.

Gautier describes the Kepler mission as "unprecedented-a watershed in stellar physics." They have a 4-year extension for the survey that will undoubtedly lead to new information about the size and scope of habitable planets beyond our own solar system.

John Storey JPEG

John Storey (above) from the Universtity of South Wales presented what he referred to as "perhaps the last talk on 'Antarctic astronomy'." Much to the relief of the audience, this was not a reflection of the consequences of global warming or institutional de-funding. On the contrary: scientists from the international community have found such value in ground-based telescopic missions, that he anticipates that we will probably no longer need to use geographic locations to define them. "It will all be astronomy."

Storey entertained the audience with a good sense of humor. As a preface to his talk: "if you don't know where we're talking about, get your inflatable globe, take the place where you put your mouth to blow it up... and that's Antarctica." And one of his slides read: " 'It's cold. Get over it.' "

In fact, the climate of the Antarctic is perfectly conducive to astronomy, if not the astronomers themselves, Storey said. There are a number of groups who have used the Antarctic landscape as a "proving ground" that we can look into space from "here to there" with great success.

'1000 times cheaper than space'

With the concerns of equipment maintenance and budgets, we can't underestimate the significance of relative cost, Storey said. While Antarctica is difficult to reach and has conditions that many humans might find inhospitable, it is still easier and more affordable than launching a space mission. This means that groups from around the world can use Antarctica's dark skies, low temperatures, low water vapor, low atmospheric boundaries, and low-cost real estate to establish high-quality telescopic projects without the risks associated with space-based missions.

Storey, who is also associated with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (http://www.scar.org/), noted that the Antarctic is '"the only place on Earth set aside strictly for science."

plenary JPEG

Chatting after the plenary session, above, from left, are SPIE President Elect Phil Stahl, Storey, Symposium Chair Kathryn Flanagan (Space Telescope Science Institute), SPIE President Eustace Dereniak, and Gautier.


Citizen science

A diverse group gathered to hear Women in Optics reception speaker Sarah Kendrew from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy on "The changing face(s) of astronomy." In addition to her work at Max Planck, Kendrew is involved in the "dotAstronomy" conference series and a team member for the Zooniverse citizen science iniative Milky Way Project.

Kendrew noted that the changing face of scientists in our current paradigm goes beyond focusing on the role of women in astronomy. The current generation of astronomers operates with new sets of tools that create a broad range of democratic and egalitarian communities. This is due in large part to the ways that people use the internet to create formal and informal teams to approach complex problems, share information, and manage data.

In astronomy blogs and other web-based platforms, there is no social hierarchy, people are not identified by their age, gender, geographic location, or even education level. This becomes an excellent equalization tool and also allows for a huge amount of human power to be focused on specific astronomical projects. (See Kendrew's blog post about the astronomy meeting.)

One of the primary challenges with astronomy is the tremendous amount of data that is generated. "There is no Moore's Law for astronomers but we have to develop methods to process and analyze the levels of information that seem to be growing exponentially," she said. One of the exciting ways that this is being accomplished is through a combination of networked astronomy, the new media, and citizen scientists.

Kendrew suggested that we should think about the vast number of  and diversity people in the world who are inspired and dedicated to astronomy should be allowed to organize and have that collective energy harvested for greater levels of discovery.

There are two main factors behind this movement:

• Data storage is relatively easy, but data discovery is hard.

• People can do things that computers can't. Human beings have special abilities to notice patterns, identify aberrations, and make other kinds of qualitative analysis of astronomical images that computers simply can't.

Citizen science projects allow individuals who are not professional astronomers to participate and sometimes make incredible discoveries. Kendrew noted that the most famous example of this is Hanny's Voorwerp, an astronomical object of unknown nature. It was discovered in 2007 by Dutch school teacher, Hanny van Arkel, while she was participating as an amateur volunteer in the Galaxy Zoo project.

Kendrew now works on the Zooniverse, which grew out of the Galaxy Zoo project and comprises over 600,000 active participants from around the world. Kendrew encouraged anyone interested to join these existing groups or start a citizen science group of their own.

Monday 2 July


plenary audience JPEG

Monday plenary talks: JWST update, exoplanet results

More than 1,200 people attended the Monday plenary session, the first of daily sessions scheduled during the week.

Heidi Hammel (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. [AURA]) gave an update on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. The project has met all of the major milestones so far, so it should be on track to stay within the $8 billion budget. This is a major undertaking that promises to provide better imaging than either the Hubble or Spitzer space telescopes, but projects of this magnitude are under constant threat by budgetary decision-makers.

Hammel stressed that projects such as the JWST and its predecessors are important for research, but also contribute to the greater human inspiration to pursue scientific investigation.

"High-profile astronomy missions inspire kids in elementary school to become the scientists of the future," she said. "This doesn't necessarily mean that they end up working in astronomy. They might work on carbon nanotubes or solar panels, but astronomy can serve as a 'first love' of scientific research and discovery". The tangible mystery of space has inspired humankind from the beginning, Hammel noted.

The ultimate goals of JWST are imaging the origins of the universe and the first galaxies to have formed, and capturing a clearer picture of exoplanets, their atmospheric circulation (phase curves), and any presence of water. The team's modeling indicates that all of these will be possible if the JWST is successful.

Hammel joked about the basic requirement of "at least one miracle per major mission," but acknowledged that these "miracles" are really the product of decades of design, development, and testing.

A new paradigm

Exoplanets are on everyone's mind and there is a great deal of work being applied to the best techniques to image and analyze data to get a better picture of these bodies.

Didier Queloz (University of Geneva) presented his latest work, detailing the spectroscopic and transit survey techniques that can measure the size and mass of exoplanets. This process is revealing a large population of multiple systems composed of super-Earth mass planets. A super-Earth is an extrasolar planet with a mass higher than Earth's, but below the mass of the Solar System's smaller gas giants Uranus and Neptune.

Although nearly 800 exoplanets are now known, none of their systems resemble our own.

"A new paradigm about the formation, structure and composition of planets is emerging, wider than what we have learned so far from our solar system," Didier said. This may be the result of detection biases in the sample so far, or the solar system may be special, so the search goes on .....

From left below, SPIE President Elect Phil Stahl (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center), plenary speakers Hammel and Queloz, and SPIE President Eustace Dereniak (College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona) talk after the plenary session. Hammel worked with Dereniak at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii in 1983 -- an illustration that while the universe is vast, our world is in many ways small. (See more photos in the event photo gallery.)

plenary speakers JPEG


Lunch with the experts

student lunch JPEG

A luncheon with experts in the field such as SPIE Board of Directors member  Jim Oschmann (above right) of Ball Aerospace provided students with valuable mentorship opportunities. The luncheon was attended by approximately 100 students and 40 working professionals offering to share their experience and wisdom on career paths in optics and photonics.


Largest-ever exhibition!

Dutch Eyes on the Skies JPEG

The "Dutch Eyes on the Skies" pavilion showcasing several Dutch space agencies and companies (above) was among highlights at the largest-ever SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation exhibiton on opening day. With more than 92 companies, the exhibition is a big draw for the flood of attendees visiting the hall, and a valuable chance to gain exposure among the community for exhibitors. At right below, SPIE Secretary/Treasurer Brian Lula staffs the booth for PI (Physik Instrumente).

PI Physik Instrumente JPEG


Poster talk

poster session JPEG

The poster hall was full again Monday evening for the second of the week's four poster receptions. Among projects featuring in the papers was the European Extremely Large Telescope, below. (See more photos in the event photo gallery.)



'Beach-side' reception

reception JPEG

reception JPEG

Over 1,200 attendees relaxed, socialized, and enjoyed refreshments while networking with their peers at the Strandzuid -- Citibeach (urban beach) -- near the convention center. (See more photos in the event photo gallery.)


Sunday 1 July



Technical talks launch the week

Among the first of more than 2,200 technical papers to be presented this week, Donald Sweeney (LSST Corp.) spoke on the latest projections for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The project is underway and funded to build, with a planned launch of 2014. The telescope will be located in Cerro Pachón, Chile, and will make 5 million observations in the course of the 10-year imaging survey, in 6 broad optical bands.

In addition to the logistical challenges to get environmental and use permitting, the team is modeling the extensive peta-scale data management system, which is designed to process one 6.4 GB image every second. This imaging will produce 15 TB of data nightly. NSF supports the project, and there is over $44 million in private funding, including $20M from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and $10M from Bill Gates.


First of four: Sunday poster reception

poster reception JPEG

The first of the week's four poster receptions provided an opportunity to talk with authors about their work.

poster author JPEG