President’s Message

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Roberto Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/l’automne 2017)

Dear CASCA Members,

It’s been a busy summer! Here are some activities that have been going on over the past few months:

CHIME First Light

About two weeks ago, Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, installed the final piece of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), triggering the official First Light for this exciting new radio telescope. Congratulations to the many people involved in CHIME at UBC, McGill, Toronto, and NRC.

CHIME is incredibly innovative and its science is hugely exciting, so it is no surprise to see that its First Light generated a lot of buzz in both the astronomical community and in the media. I can’t wait to see the exciting science it will produce. The process by which CHIME came into existence is also interesting because it is another success story for the CASCA Long-Range Plan process. I was on the LRP2010 committee (chaired by Chris Pritchet at the University of Victoria) and well remember the extensive discussions about CHIME that led to it being declared the top mid-scale priority in the plan. This prioritization evidently played an important role in securing its funding. I’m not a radio astronomer (yet), and I’m no lover of committees (in general), but I must say it is incredibly satisfying watching the CHIME team deliver the goods and knowing that the work the community put into LRP2010 helped make CHIME happen. By being organized, disciplined, and working together, harnessing the many strengths of both Canadian Universities and the NRC, we can build the groundwork for more Canadian success stories in astrophysics. And if you are getting the impression from this buildup that the Canadian community is starting to gear up for LRP2020, well, of course you’re right. Witness (for example) the very successful recent workshop held in Montreal last week on “Canadian Radio Astronomy – Surveying the Present and Shaping the Future”. So, please start thinking about what you want the future to look like, because the planning for LRP2020 will be starting quite soon.

TMT Progress

After nearly five months of hearing evidence, the contested case hearing for the Thirty Meter Telescope Project has concluded and State Hearings Officer and former Judge Riki May Amano has recommended that a permit be issued to the University of Hawaii to allow construction of the TMT. In parallel with this progress in the legal domain, support for the TMT has been growing in Hawaii. Oahu public support for TMT construction is now almost 80 percent, and the most recent polling indicates that Hawaii Island residents support the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. This is great news! Very serious consideration of the backup site (La Palma) continues but we now have many reasons to be optimistic about the prospect of TMT construction at our first-choice site in Hawaii. Challenges remain but this should not come as as a surprise to anybody. (Beyond a certain scale, essentially all ambitious scientific infrastructure projects have to deal with some combination of logistical, financial, and scheduling hurdles. The trick is to have a robust plan in place to manage the challenges.) CASCA members interested in learning how the TMT project is progressing, and on the plans for future instruments, should participate in the community Webcast with senior TMT management being organized by CATAC (see Michael Balogh’s CATAC report in this issue for details). Future webcasts will organized to help keep the community up to date on the considerable progress being made on the TMT.

Perhaps it is not out of place to remind ourselves that the privilege of observing on Mauna Kea has been a huge benefit to many of us. Let’s be grateful for, and respectful of, this privilege. Over the summer, I sat down with a couple of books and did some reading about the fascinating history of the people of Hawaii. Since I’ve been a regular visitor to the islands for 25 years, I’m truly ashamed that it took me this long to read a book on this subject. As the legal process winds down, I hope more astronomers take some time to learn more about the history of the islands. (Though it’s somewhat dated, I can recommend “Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands” by Gavan Daws. If you have other suggestions, please do email me with them.)

Space Science and the Canadian Space Agency

After years of talking about it on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) advisory committee, the JWST Early Release Science proposal deadline has come and gone. The selection committee is meeting in a few weeks and will divide about 500 hours worth of observing time between about 15 proposals, chosen from the 106 submitted. The JWST General Observer call for proposals will come out in two months with a proposal deadline of next March. The lesson you should draw from all this is that THE JWST ERA IS ALMOST HERE!

The Canadian Space Agency has played an important role in the development of the JWST mission and, when the spacecraft launches in 2018, I think that all Canadians will be justifiably proud to learn that a team of Canadian academic, governmental, and industrial scientists, engineers and technicians built one of JWST’s key instruments (the NIRISS spectrometer, whose Principal Investigator is René Doyon at the Université de Montréal), not to mention the critical Fine Guidance Sensor that points and guides the telescope.

Unfortunately, JWST will have a very limited lifetime. It is designed to have at least a five-year lifetime after launch, and carries only enough fuel to maintain orbital positioning for a little over ten years. Of course, most space-based endeavours have long lead times, and investments in space missions frequently begin to pay off many years into the future (and, when it comes to flagship missions, sometimes decades into the future). The spectacular near-term future we are anticipating with JWST is thus the product of investments begun many years ago. But what about the decades after JWST? We need to ensure that post-JWST Canada continues to innovate, lead, and inspire.

Operating in synergy with the CASCA Long Range Plan, and with a particular eye toward LRP2020, a number of Canadians have begun thinking about ways to lay out a roadmap to such an exciting post-JWST future. Professors Sarah Gallagher (Western) and Jeremy Heyl (UBC), working with graduate student Ilaria Caiazzo (UBC), have put together a very thoughtful white paper which I think everybody should read. This White Paper, together with the various Topical Team reports now being prepared by the CSA, show how space-based astrophysical research should operate in the country at a variety of levels, from low-cost, agile balloon-based missions that perform end-to-end experiments on a timescale relevant for the training of graduate students, to focused mid-scale missions that target high-risk/high-return subjects such as primordial gravitational waves from the first few moments after the Big Bang, all the way up to proposed participation in (and potentially leadership in) much more infrequent but highly ambitious facilities that will keep our astronomical research and space industrial communities vibrant long after JWST. The key to to this future is increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency, and the immediate audience for our recommendations is the government’s newly-formed Space Advisory Board. The Space Advisory Board’s first report, titled “Consultations on Canada’s Future in Space: What We Heard”, is now available here.

This report summarizes the feedback Space Advisory Board members received from stakeholders during the public consultations on Canada’s future in space. There are exciting plans, but how do we turn these plans into reality? By now you should not be surprised to learn that LRP2020 will be an important component in this. In the meantime, we need to keep delivering the message to the government. And this inevitably brings me to the my final topic: activities by the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy.

Coalition Activities

In late August, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy prepared a pre-budget submission and submitted this to the government. There are two main recommendations in the submission:

Firstly, we offer a recommendation for increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that is very much in-line with the White Paper noted above. The Coalition believes Canada has the resources to achieve international leadership in space-based astronomy, matching its existing success in ground-based astronomy, and that such a future includes leadership in a future space mission.

Secondly, as noted by the report on the Fundamental Science Review (the Naylor Report), Canada needs a mechanism for funding “big science” projects, which tend to involve multiple international partners, have price tags in the billions, take years to conceive and build, and have lifespans measured in decades. The lack of such a funding mechanism could mean lost opportunities for Canadian astronomy in the future, including those priority projects identified in our pre-budget submission. Therefore, getting a nimble mechanism in place remains a top priority for the Coalition. You will be hearing more about formal CASCA Board support for the Naylor Report soon, along with some suggestions for things you can personally do to help draw attention to this important report.

In addition to providing the government with a formal document as part of the pre-budget submission process, we also wrote to Ministers Bains and Duncan on August 30 to reinforce the priorities noted above. The co-chairs of the coalition (myself, on behalf of CASCA, Don Brooks, on behalf of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, and our industry co-chair Guy Nelson, CEO of Empire Industries) plan to visit Ottawa in October/November to follow-up on the priorities identified in this letter. As with our last visit to Ottawa, we will make an effort to meet with politicians on both sides of the bench.

Let me conclude this message by thanking you, on behalf of the CASCA Board, for your support of our society. We promise to work hard on your behalf. If you have any suggestions for things we could be doing better, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Roberto Abraham

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