ACURA News

By Ernie Seaquist, ACURA Executive Director
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/Automne 2015)

Introduction

This is the eighth issue of the semi-annual newsletter for E-Cass readers. The intention is to keep the community up to date on the activity of ACURA. ACURA is the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, with a membership of 20 universities. ACURA exists to promote the interests of Canadian university astronomers, including the highest priority LRP projects requiring funding by the Federal Government. The current projects of interest to ACURA are the TMT and the SKA. ACURA also maintains an active role in advancing the interests of its member institutions in the governance of federally supported astronomy, currently undertaken by NRC.

ACURA is primarily concerned with the promotion of and participation in its two highest priorities – the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) following the ground based priorities for world observatories in the LRP. More on ACURA activity on these topics can be found below.

Activity on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

As almost everyone knows by now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on April 6, 2015 that Canada will join as a partner in the TMT project. The amount of the commitment was up to $243.5M Canadian dollars over the period of construction (just under 10 years). This commitment provides for a share by Canada of about 15%, less than the 20% requested, but nevertheless a significant share. This represents a very large commitment by the Federal Government to investment in astronomy, and is obviously a major success for the Canadian Long Range Plan (LRP). NRC as the signing member and executive authority for Canada, in accordance with its parliamentary mandate on government funded large astronomy facilities. The efforts of ACURA, together with its Coalition partners, CASCA and Industry, were a major factor in achieving this success, as were the efforts of NRC in providing the supporting information and documentation to Industry Canada. The success of course rests on the shoulders of the many individuals who were responsible for initiating Canadian engagement in TMT and following through with the design and development work, including NRC, university scientists, and industry teams.

In the end, the government appears to have been persuaded by a number of factors, including support within ACURA universities, led by presidents Meric Gertler of the University of Toronto and Arvind Gupta of the University of British Columbia. Undoubtedly as well, the NRC commissioned industry report, Astronomy Technologies Study on the economic benefits of astronomy instrumentation development at NRC, helped to win the day. As noted in my last newsletter, this report by the Ottawa firm of Doyletech Corporation gives an excellent account of the economic benefits of the adaptive optics work stemming from the emerging new applications to fields such as medicine, the defence industry, communications, and the consumer optical market. Another supporting factor was the unwavering support of Canadian astronomers who consistently underscored that TMT is the highest priority for Canadian astronomy as outlined in the LRP. Without this, we could not have succeeded.

ACURA is now turning its attention to the follow-up, which is a plan for its engagement in TMT governance. Already the Canadian members of the Board of Governors of the newly formed TMT International Observatory (TIO) are Greg Fahlman, General Manager for NRC Herzberg, Ray Carlberg, Canadian TMT Project Director, and myself as ACURA Executive Director. Although executive authority for TMT in Canada resides with NRC, it is understood by both NRC and universities that the scientific user community needs to be heard. This can be accomplished by a role in governance of the Canadian involvement in TMT. Accordingly ACURA is meeting with NRC to outline the nature of this role. The ACURA Board and Council have also met to discuss this topic at their meetings on May 28, 2015 in Hamilton. Convergence appears to be focusing on a process of formal consultation between ACURA and NRC to ensure that the scientific goals of TMT are achieved and that the needs of the community are at the forefront. This could be accomplished by two ACURA Committees – one at the vice-presidential level to discuss strategic issues, and another at the scientific level to glean the views of the community and formulate recommendations for the strategic level committee to carry forward to NRC. The science committee would have representatives appointed by both ACURA and CASCA, and would function in a manner similar to the newly formed ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS). The new council would in fact be named AACT to represent the TMT. Discussions with NRC will continue later this fall.

Activity related to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

From both scientific and technical perspectives, Canada is becoming increasingly well positioned to make key contributions to the SKA. In the recent pre-construction down-select for design concepts for the components of SKA1 (phase 1 of the SKA), Canada (primarily through NRC) fared very well, and is poised to make contributions to the project in the areas of composite antennas, correlators and beam-formers, low noise amplifiers and RF digitizers. This would represent a contribution by Canada equivalent to about $50-60M Canadian.

On the scientific front, ACURA activity in the SKA is closely tied to its support for the ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS) chaired by Bryan Gaensler. AACS has been very active in putting together a plan for Canadian scientific participation in the SKA. It has ensured effective Canadian participation in an international science workshop held in Stockholm on August 24-27, 2015, one of a series of meetings held to define the key science projects for SKA1. This will be followed by a Canadian SKA workshop in Toronto December 10-11 to further develop the plan for Canada’s contributions to the international science planning activity. AACS is also developing an ACURA sponsored Canadian SKA website intended for both domestic and international exposure to highlight Canadian involvement in the SKA. In addition, AACS has prepared a detailed report to the MTR panel on the areas where Canada expects to make scientific contributions in order to support the LRP priority of the SKA.

ACURA is financially supporting all of this activity, including the December workshop, the website preparation, the SKA luncheon meeting held at the CASCA meeting in Hamilton in May, 2015, and travel for the AACS Chair.

Overall, ACURA has its hands full for the coming year in both TMT and SKA. In addition, a new ACURA website is in preparation scheduled for completion this fall. It will be hosted at the University of Montreal. It will have a new look and feel, and will be kept up to date in both languages, which has been a problem with the old website. Thanks to ACURA secretary René Racine for initiating this project and seeing it through to completion.

Finally, I would welcome any feedback and suggestions from the community on these and/or other activities.

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