President’s Report (June 15, 2013)


Hello everyone,

since I wrote my last report two months ago, I have had the opportunity to attend three meetings that are directly relevant to the strategic planning for Canadian astronomy. Two of these meetings focused specifically on CFHT: the ngCFHT workshop, which took place in Hilo, HI, on March 27-29, 2013, and the triennial CFHT Users’ Meeting, held in Campbell River on May 6-8.  The third meeting was, of course, the 2013 CASCA AGM, which took place on the campus of the University of British Columbia on May 28-30. The following reflects my notes and impressions from these meetings.


The Future of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope

CFHT is at a crossroad. Until now, the telescope has maintained world-wide competitiveness – in spite of its modest size in a landscape dominated by 8m class facilities – thanks to its wide-field imaging capabilities. This is changing. HyperSupremeCam (HSC) at Subaru outperforms MegaCam by an order of magnitude in exposure time and 10% to 15% in image quality. DECam, now in full operation at the 4m Blanco telescope, boasts nearly 4 times MegaCam’s field of view. PanSTARRS 1+2 and, especially, LSST (on track for a 2014 start of construction) will eventually completely dominate the wide-field imaging game. These facilities will be game changers. Dome venting (which is underway) and/or upgrades in MegaCam detectors (which have been proposed) will keep the CFHT competitive in the near term, but, in my view, do not represent CFHT’s long-term future.

At the CFHT Users’ Meeting, the Director, Doug Simons, laid out a three-step plan for the telescope: 1) implement new capabilities to keep CFHT competitive in the very near-term; 2) expand the existing partnership; and 3) transform the telescope into a new facility.

Proposals for new capabilities for CFHT will be tended in August 2013, and a selection will be made in late fall/winter. Upgrades to the MegaCam and/or ESPaDOnS detectors, the purchase of narrow-band filters for MegaCam, a 4D Superconducting MKID Camera, and upgrades to the Pueo AO system are some of the ideas floated at the meeting. Before then, we can look forward to SITELLE, an imaging Fourier transform spectrometer with an 11’×11’ field of view and wavelength range between 350 and 850 nm. SITELLE is scheduled to be delivered at the telescope this summer, and will be offered on a shared risk basis in 2014A.

Doug made it clear that the future of CFHT must proceed through expansion of the current consortium with a view towards exploiting the strengths and synergies of the existing facilities on Mauna Kea. CFHT has been working towards this goal for several years already, with Brazil, China, Korea and Taiwan currently buying nights on the telescope. Doug announced that China has expressed an interest of becoming a full partner. This opens an exciting possibility, since the additional funding could be used to cover the operating costs for UKIRT, which is looking for a new owner to take over after September 30, 2013. The advantages are obvious, not least the fact that if (when) CFHT is redeveloped, UKIRT could provide needed telescope access to the Canadian optical community while the CFHT site is under construction.

Which brings us to point 3) in Doug’s presentation. Currently the only proposed long-term future for CFHT is ngCFHT: a 10m telescope, to be built on the existing CFHT pier, equipped with a highly multiplexed, wide field, medium to high resolution spectrograph. The project is proposing to start redeveloping the site in late 2017, with first light expected in ~2021. At both the Users’ meeting, and at the ngCFHT workshop, the case was made by numerous speakers that such facility would outperform all existing or planned wide-field spectroscopic instruments, including BigBoss, AAT/Hermes, VISTA/4MOST, and VLT/MOONS. I was mostly impressed by the diversity of the science cases ngCFHT can address: from exoplanets to cosmology, and everything in between (see for a partial list).

The ngCFHT workshop was attended by close to 100 participants from Canada, France, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, many of whom not directly associated with the feasibility study for the project. Although there is no question that the scientific enthusiasm behind ngCFHT is significant, funding is an issue (the cost estimate is ~$200M, to be divided amongst all partners), and of course it remains to be seen whether ngCFHT will remain the only route forward, or whether other ideas will emerge. But one thing is certain: we must act soon – now – or we risk being left behind in the burgeoning field of wide-field spectroscopic surveys.


The CASCA Annual General Meeting

The 2013 CASCA AGM took place on the campus of the University of British Columbia on May 28-30. The scientific level of the meeting was very high – with many excellent talks and posters on topics from exoplanets to stellar chronology to the recent Planck results. Presentations were made on future facilities, including SKA, SPICA, CCAT, the Artic Telescope and ngCFHT (TMT was, regrettably, absent), as well as current facilities, in particular JCMT, ALMA, Gemini and CFHT; a lunch discussion focused on the implementation of the LRP and generated some interesting discussion about the future of CFHT and Space Astronomy projects (slides can be found on the LRP Implementation committee webpage. Additionally, I would like to remind everyone that the latest reports from all CASCA committees, containing several statements relevant to the issues discussed here, are posted on the Committee pages on the CASCA website).

In terms of current ground-based facilities, with the exception of ALMA, the outlook is not especially positive. The STFC Council will cease operational support for JCMT on September 30, 2014; consequently, JCMT, like UKIRT, is looking for a new owner, and a Prospectus is expected to be released this summer. As for Gemini, the director Markus Kissler-Patig reported some good news (Flamingos2 has now been installed at Gemini South and is undergoing commissioning, while GPI will be delivered later this summer) but also spoke of a significant (20%) budget cut. In spite of this, Gemini is taking steps to ensure its competitiveness: Markus outlined a plan that facilitates the use of visiting instruments; operationally, the SAC and Board are considering a proposal to allocate 20% of the telescope time to Large Projects (a good idea, in my opinion, as mounting large observing campaigns at Gemini is almost impossible under the current multi-national TAC structure).

At the “business meeting” the membership approved CASCA’s Ethics Statement as well as the new amended by-laws required to comply with the new Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. There are two important changes in the new by-laws (which have not yet been submitted but are expected to take effect within the next year). The first is a change in the structure of the CASCA Executive. The 1st and 2nd vice presidents (now serving a one-year term) will be replaced by a single vice-president, serving for two years. To compensate, the number of directors will be increased from three to four. The second change is in the mechanism to select new Board members. While the Nominating Committee will continue to propose nominees, volunteers will be solicited from the community well in advance of the Committee deliberations.

Finally, it was announced that the 2014 CASCA Meeting will be hosted by Université Laval and take place in downtown Québec City on June 8-11. Two bids to host the 2015 meeting have been received and are being considered.


Additional Activities

Since the last report, there has been a new development concerning the review process of NSERC Discovery Grants. In the 2012-2013 competition, none of the six astronomers serving on the panel was working at a Canadian Institution (five worked in the US, one in France). This is of obvious concern. The CASCA Board has been in communication with NSERC on this issue; copies of all correspondence can be found in the CASCA Board webpage. The Canadian Association of Physics (CAP) has also been informed. At this time, the situation is not yet resolved.

A second development concerns High Performance Computing (HPC). Since the last report, the newly appointed Compute Canada (CC) CEO, Bill Applebe, has left the organization, and has been replaced (on an interim basis) by the CEO of Westgrid, Jill Kowalchuk. In a recent email communication, Jill indicated that CC is in the process of forming a Research Advisory Committee, and that this will include a CASCA representative. This is great news, as the lack in the current CC governance of a voice speaking for researchers across Canada has been a serious concern for the membership.

Finally, the CASCA Board is making preparations for a Mid Term Review (MTR) of our Long Range Plan. An MTR panel will be formed (we are in the process of identifying a Chair), and we are planning two Town Hall meetings to be held in June next year (one possibly in Québec immediately following the AGM, and one in Western Canada). Papers describing progress on the LPR priorities, as well as outlining new initiatives that might have emerged since the LPR, will be solicited before then.


Until next time, I wish everybody a very happy and productive summer.

Laura Ferrarese,

President of CASCA,

Victoria, June 15, 2013