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, red ginseng, 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!

The Way We Used To Meet

Scientists used to complain about being involved in too many meetings.

These days, they more often complain about being summoned to too many telecons, videocons and immersive remote-attendance meetings of all sorts. And some of the software systems developed to make all of this somewhat less painful are not too bad, actually.

And so I find myself attending, along with my boss sitting atop a Hawaiian volcano where he is observing at a telescope, the first meeting of the HELP consortium taking place in Brighton, Sussex, UK.

This got me thinking about how we as humans crave in-person contact, and how mundane and disconnected we feel when communicating through a computer screen. That is why I think it’s important for companies to read resources like this page in order to get acquainted with what’s needed to satisfy customers and coworkers alike.

Here’s a sneak peek at our humble objectives.

HELP Objectives
HELP Objectives


A sick-ish day at home went by between a lively telecon of our VOICE collaboration and sorting out a few related actions.

The VOICE project, jointly led by Giovanni Covone and myself, employs ESO‘s VST telescope to carry out a deep and wide multi-epoch optical imaging survey of the sky CDFS and ES1 fields. Observations haven’t progressed as fast as we thought when we first set out with the project in late 2011, but the large amount of existing multi-wavelength data in these fields have allowed us to make the most of the relatively little VST data obtained to date.

While the first papers are now in the process of being drafted, today we mostly discussed possible improvements to be made to the data processing pipeline and plans for the completion of the survey.



The first HELP (Herschel Extragalactic Legacy Project) consortium meeting will take place later this week in Brighton (UK).

HELP is a collaborative research project funded by the EU FP7-SPACE-2013 program and led by the University of Sussex to bring together and exploit most multi-wavelength data obtained in extragalactic fields observed by the European Space Agency‘s Herschel Space Observatory, and particularly those covered by the HerMES and H-ATLAS projects.

HerMES Fields
HerMES Fields overlaid on Sky Dust Emission Map (IRAS/COBE/ David Schlegel, Mattia Vaccari)

Specifically, UWC Astrophysics will be leading the Multi-Wavelength ‘Data Fusion’ work package, but we will also be strongly involved in providing the MeerKAT radio observations which will be key in identifying and studying Herschel sources.

The project runs for 4 years (2014-2017), and lots of hard work and exciting science lie ahead, but as it is so often the case, at this inaugural meeting most of the time will arguably be spent ironing out the details of the work plan and the interfaces between the different nodes of the consortium. And I will not even be able to go out for a pint after wrapping up for I will be eavesdropping on the meeting over Skype from Cape Town.


Hello WordPress, My Old Friend…

(installing) wordpress is only a tool, it’s a hard heart that kills… and so, whether this will revive my poorly maintained and infrequently updated Web Shack is anyone’s guess…