And we are back (at the edge of the Universe)

Along with some UWC chums (i.e. Imogem, Kim & Mario) I spent a very pleasant (well, at least until I got a flu;/) week in Sintra (Portugal) attending the “Back at the edge of the Universe” conference. The meeting was devoted to discuss astronomers’ present and future studies of the high-redshift Universe, including their attempts at detecting the Universe’s ‘First Light’, i.e. the first galaxies and black holes to have formed after the Big Bang, and assessing their impact on the reionization of  the Universe. This followed a previous gathering from 9 years ago organized on the same grounds, and the meeting was thus also a chance to take stock of the substantial progress  made in tackling these questions over the last decade. The long science sessions in beautiful Sintra were made all the more pleasant by the terrific home team led by Jose Afonso and Portugal’s newly established Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences and by frequent generous helpings of Bacalau & Porto, and perhaps unsurprisingly everybody is now hoping to get a chance to make it back here for another conference much sooner than in 9 years time. We’ll see about that.

SKA South Africa Bursary Conference

Today marked the end of  SKA South Africa‘s Bursary Conference in Stellenbosch. Now in its ninth edition, the meeting brings together astronomy and engineering students and fellows from across South Africa presenting their work in front of their supervisors as well as some international guests. As it is often the case, this meeting of minds also involved a fair amount of alcohol and hugging!:-) See you in 2015 then!

High Performance Computing in the African Bush

I’ve been spending this past week at Kruger National Park’s Skukuza Rest Camp catching up with work while attending the yearly gathering organized by South Africa’s Center for High Performance Computing. I’ve eavesdropped on most sessions to get a feeling for the kind of problems facing contemporary high performance computing but also for the numerical scientific work being done in the country. I gave a talk about Big Data in Multi-Wavelength Astrophysics and managed to go on a couple (one disappointing, one very nice) of early morning game drives. Student participation was very much encouraged at the conference and about 10 student teams battled with a computing cluster building project to be completed during the conference. The winners were announced last night, and are going to be trained by Dell in their Austin headquarters to participate into the international finals in Frankfurt next year . A UWC team had won the past two editions but unfortunately this year’s aptly-named (uhm) “bi-winning” team didn’t make it this time around. Team SA also went on to win the international finals on the past two occasions, so no pressure on the Wits team;-). The conference will now be drawing to a close with a Q&A Sessions with the HPC Industry Vendors, and it’ll then be goodbye and see you all in Port Elizabeth on Nov 30 – Dec 4th 2015. In other news, a local water sports practitioner tragically died, apparently while taking a bath late at night in the nearby Golf Course’s Ninth Hole lake the other day. One can’t be too careful with crocs, I guess:/)

CHPC Conference Banner
CHPC Conference Banner

The Digital Universe

I am spending the week at “The Universe of the Digital Sky Surveys” conference in Naples, catching up on the latest news from sky surveys from both ground and space and enjoying excellent coffee, mozzarella, pizza and seafood on the side.

The conference is also a celebration of  Massimo Capaccioli‘s 70th birthday. Massimo is between other things the PI of ESO/INAF’s VST telescope, built by INAF on behalf of ESO, which has been working for about 3 years now and I’ve actually been using for a survey project of mine. The conference will therefore be showcasing some of the first results from VST surveys.

The meeting is hosted by the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte, which as I now recall I first visited for a graduate school in astronomical technology back in 2000. Weather’s looking good this morning and everybody’s suitably delighted to be up the hill overlooking the bay of Naples.

This morning we started with a couple of excellent review talks about ground-based and space-based extragalactic optical surveys by Tom Shanks and Yannick Mellier respectively, but surveys of the nearby and distant Universe alike will be presented. We’ll have a few talks and posters presenting VOICE results, on wednesday Oxford/UWC’s Matt Jarvis will be presenting VIDEO and I’ll be closing things down talking about HELP and Data Fusion as the last speaker (oh joy!;-) on friday afternoon.

It all looks like it’s going to be a great conference: live streaming and twitter feed are available.

(Data) Size Matters!

These days I’m attending a conference in Frascati, on the beautiful hills surrounding Rome, about large space satellite datasets and their exploitation. Most of the sessions so far have been about new data processing infrastructures and technologies and Earth Observations, but this morning’s session (opened by the excellent keynote by Naples’ Peppe Longo of DAME fame) is about Big Data in Astronomy, and some of the most ambitious upcoming astronomical ground-based projects such as LSST and SKA have also sneaked into the program. Throughout, much emphasis is being put on bridging the gap between the software engineering layer required to store the data and the actual scientific exploitation, including customizing Data Mining and Machine Learning techniques to Astronomy. And for those who were wondering: at a nominal data rate of 1 Exabyte / day (that’s a million Terabyte, or a billion Gigabyte, per day), the Square Kilometre Array perhaps unsurprisingly leads the pack;-)

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an international project involving 10+ countries to build the ultimate radio telescope. Its name stems from the fact that the total collecting area, divided into thousands of dishes to be deployed in Southern Africa and Western Australia, will eventually be roughly equivalent to a filled square of 1 kilometre in side.

South Africa and Australia are currently busy completing MeerKAT and ASKAP, known as SKA precursors, which are both intended to test some of the technologies required for the SKA and to address some of the science questions to be tackled by the SKA. The SKA project itself will then be realized in two phases, with Phase 1 and Phase 2 construction to be completed by 2020 and 2030 respectively, and work is currently ongoing in completing the Phase 1 instrument design.

This week, more than 250 scientists, including yours truly, have thus gathered for the SKA 2014 Science Conference in Giardini Naxos, close to Taormina in Sicily, Italy, whose aim is to discuss the several science areas which the SKA is more likely to contribute to. With 100+ science talks on the schedule it sure looks like it’s going to be a busy and fun week, which the twitter-inclined can follow through the project tweets  and/or the live tweets from the conference.

Of Galaxy Clusters & Cosmic Dust

A couple of scientific papers I was (loosely) involved in have recently made the news, both exploiting European Space Agency‘s Herschel Space Observatory.

In the first one, my former postdoctoral supervisor, Dave Clements at Imperial College London, combined data from the Herschel & Planck space observatories to detect what we now believe are some of the most distant galaxy clusters found to date. Imperial’s full press release dwells some more on the discovery and its implications.

Herschel/Planck Galaxy Clusters (ESA/NASA/Herschel/Planck & Dave Clements)
Herschel/Planck Galaxy Clusters (ESA/NASA/Herschel/Planck & Dave Clements)

In the second paper, my fellow Italian Luca Cortese used Herschel to perform the most accurate census to date of cosmic dust in nearby galaxies. For the more graphically inclined, my old chum Bruno Merin with the Herschel Science Centre in Madrid has also produced a very nice image slider to navigate the optical and infrared appearance of this large sample of nearby galaxies. ESA’s press release will fill you in with the details.

Herschel Reference Survey (ESA/Herschel/HRS/HeViCS/SDSS & Luca Cortese)
Herschel Reference Survey (ESA/Herschel/HRS/HeViCS/SDSS & Luca Cortese)

Well done to both, then. For the record, the Herschel Space Observatory was launched on May 14th 2009 and carried out scientific operations until the liquid helium employed to cool its instrumentation ran out on April 29th 2013. However, its 37,000 scientific observations, illustrated in the animation below, will be actively studied for years to come. Here’s to many a press release and shiny graphics!