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SPIE Professional April 2012

Overwhelmingly Large Challenge

SPIE conferences will address the challenge of tight budgets for astronomers

By Rich Donnelly

logo for SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and InstrumentationWith the increasing cost and decreasing availability of funds for large telescope projects, designers must come up with creative solutions to these challenges to enable astronomers to keep up their pace of discovery.

The theme of seeing through and navigating these budgetary clouds cuts across the 12 conferences of the 2012 SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation symposium, scheduled for 1-6 July at the Amsterdam RAI Convention Center in the Netherlands.

Conferences are organized into two program tracks, Telescopes and Systems and Technology Advancements. In the first group, the conference on Modeling, Systems Engineering, and Project Management for Astronomy explores many lessons learned from projects of all sizes. This is an area of growing importance, as good management and thorough testing can help control costs.

The Software and Cyberinfrastructure for Astronomy conference asks how software developers can better respond to the changing environment of astronomical technology development. Once a telescope begins observations, information from an ever-growing stream of observations must be managed. With nearly 150 papers, this conference addresses the issues of processing, collaboration, and storage in the age of “big data” as well as the increasing complexity of telescope and instrumentation control.

While the astronomical instrumentation landscape is dominated by the high-profile ground- and space-based instruments, from the existing Hubble and VLT to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope, there are many less “flashy” projects generating important results.

This biannual SPIE symposium and two-day exhibition is where telescope designers and operators come together to share their experience and learn from each other. The astronomy picture is not complete without a combination of large and small, ground and space, and this event puts them all on the same stage.

“Critical technologies to exploit our telescope facilities and make major scientific advances include high-order deformable mirrors with thousands of actuators, multi-CCD focal planes resembling sheets of silicon, and large-format IR detectors for both high- and low-background applications,” says Mark Casali, who chairs the symposium this year with Kathryn Flanagan.

The symposium will be a "fantastic showcase of the world's ideas and technologies for enabling astronomical research," Casali says, especially in the area of innovative telescope design, with the most recent innovation being the development of technology allowing telescopes to break the 8-meter barrier. "The segmented mirror approach has been pioneered on smaller telescopes but becomes the best way of constructing telescopes on scales once thought impossible," he says.

IR, adaptive optics and other conference and course topics

Conferences at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation in Amsterdam will cover technology advancements in high-energy, infrared, far-infrared, and other detectors; adaptive optics systems; and updates on most of the major telescopes in use or under construction.

Other sessions will cover:

  • Observatory operations
  • Optical and infrared interferometry
  • Solar telescope design
  • Photometric and other data processing
  • Modeling and simulation
  • Mirror coatings

Onsite courses at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation are taught by experts from around the world and will cover adaptive optics, systems engineering, spectrograph design, instrument materials, and related topics at introductory and intermediate levels.

Seven plenary talks are planned on a variety of topics.

  • Exoplanets: Unraveling a New Paradigm, 2 July, by Didier Queloz of Geneva University (Switzerland)
  • James Webb Space Telescope: Science Update and Status, 2 July, by Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of AURA, Inc. (USA)
  • The Kepler Exoplanet Survey: Instruments, Performance, and Results, 3 July, by Thomas Gautier of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (USA)
  • Antarctic Astronomy, 3 July, by W. V. Storey, University of New South Wales
  • Very High Energy Gamma Ray Astronomy with the HESS Telescopes, 4 July, by Werner Hofmann of Max-Planck-Institut fuer Kernphysik (Germany)
  • The Cosmic Microwave Background: Observing Directly the Early Universe, 4 July, by Paolo De Bernardis of University degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza (Italy)
  • ALMA Construction and Early Science, 5 July, Thijs de Graauw of the Joint ALMA Observatory (Chile)
SPIE Women in Optics presentation

SPIE member Sarah Kendrew, a systems engineer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, will discuss "The Changing Face(s) of Astronomy" at the SPIE Women in Optics presentation and reception on 3 July.

The observatories of the future will change the way we do astronomy, Kendrew says. A growing culture of openness and the networked nature of science are driving innovation in communication and collaboration between scientists and far beyond the research community.

Web-based citizen science platforms, such as the Zooniverse, bring together professional astronomers and science enthusiasts around the world - bringing exciting science to a broad audience, fostering trust in the research community, and redefining the answer to the question "Who is an astronomer?"


 A 360-degree night sky over Cerro Armazones in Chile, site of the E-ELT.
ESO 50th anniversary

In October 1962, representatives from five European countries — Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden — signed the ESO Convention in Paris. Their signatures represented a formal commitment to establish the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, today commonly known as the European Southern Observatory.

“ESO’s 50th anniversary comes in the middle of the most exciting period for European and international ground-based astronomy,” says Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s director general. “ESO has come a long way since it was established in 1962.”

Numerous exhibitions and celebrations are planned for this year at ESO headquarters in Munich and in the 15 member states. But if anything, this milestone anniversary may be overshadowed by the excitement of starting construction this year on the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

Several papers at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation, including a featured talk at the all-conference dinner by ESO's Jason Spyromilio, will provide progress updates on the E-ELT.


 An artist’s impression of the E-ELT on Cerro Armazones.
Preparing for the E-ELT

The core concept is for a telescope with a mirror 39.3 meters in diameter, covering a field on the sky about a tenth the size of the full moon. The mirror design itself is revolutionary and is based on a novel five-mirror approach that results in an exceptional image quality.

The primary mirror consists of almost 800 segments, each 1.4 meters wide but only 50 mm thick.

 Assembled E-ELT mirror segments undergoing testing in February.
Photo courtesy ESO/H.-H. Heyer

While the scale of the E-ELT is smaller than the original concept — a 100m segmented-mirror facility known as the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope — it will nonetheless be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world and will gather 13 times more light than the largest optical telescopes existing today. Final design of the E-ELT facility is underway, with the goal of having the observatory begin operation early in the next decade.

In addition to design activities, more than 30 European scientific institutes and companies are studying the technological aspects of large telescopes within the Framework Programme 6 ELT Design Study, partially funded by the European Commission. More EC funding has been allocated for its preparatory phase under Framework Programme 7.

This venture is the only optical astronomy project selected in the roadmap of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures. It also features very prominently in the ASTRONET European Infrastructure Roadmap for Astronomy.

The E-ELT will be built atop Cerro Armazones, a mountain 3060 meters above the central Atacama Desert in Chile, about 20 kilometers from Cerro Paranal, home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The site was chosen in 2010, and in October 2011 an external review confirmed that the E-ELT could be constructed within a proposed €1.08 billion budget.

Preparatory work is planned for this year.

Chairs for the 2012 symposium in Amsterdam are:

Kathryn FlanaganKathryn Flanagan (USA)





Mark Casali

Mark Casali (Germany)





Co-chairs are

Gillian WrightGillian Wright (UK)





Luc SimardLuc Simard (Canada)





Read more about astronomy, telescopes, and astronomical instrumentation in the SPIE Newsroom: spie.org/news-astronomy.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


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DOI: 10.1117/2.4201204.16

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