Word from the president / Mot du président

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Bob Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)

Dear CASCA Members,

The last six months have been eventful ones for our association. The federal government has solicited feedback from Canadians on a number of matters of relevance to our community, and CASCA and its Coalition for Canadian Astronomy partners have responded by providing written input to Canada’s Innovation Agenda, and to the federal government’s Fundamental Science Review Panel (whom I also met with in Calgary). We also provided input to the government via the pre-budget submission process, mailed out a summary of the conclusions of the CASCA Mid-Term Review to all MPs, and are about to send each MP a beautifully printed copy of the full review (the production of which has been overseen by Rob Thacker, who has an eye for these things). We have made it a priority to learn more about the aspirations of our industry partners, particularly in the Space Astronomy sector, and reached out to the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada to consider ways in which CASCA could partner with them on topics of mutual interest. Many of you also participated in the Canadian Space Agency’s Space Exploration Workshop, in which CASCA members played a prominent role, and which ended on an optimistic note regarding the future of Canada’s aspirations in space astronomy.

In spite of this good progress, the elephant in the room remains the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which is facing some real challenges in Hawaii. As most of you know, the crux of the matter is the decision made almost exactly one year ago by the State Supreme Court of Hawaii to invalidate the TMT’s building permit (because due process was not followed in approving the initial permit). A contested case hearing is currently underway to determine if a new permit will be issued. The project must await the outcome from this (and the inevitable appeals, should the decision be positive), so I think it will be about six months before we know whether construction can continue at the Maunakea site.

The uncertainty over the future of astronomy on Maunakea has forced the TMT project to look seriously into alternative sites (more on this below). At a more personal level, it has also spurred many of us to reflect more on issues regarding Native Hawaiian culture and sovereignty. I personally think this is bit of a silver lining, as many astronomers now have a deeper respect for, and understanding of, the issues in Hawaii. Within CASCA, this has also led to some soul-searching about what we might be able to do to connect more closely with our own aboriginal community. This culminated recently in the CASCA Board’s Decision to reinvigorate the Westar Lectureship series, and to operate the Westar lectures in tandem with teacher training seminars offered by the CASCA-sponsored Discover The Universe Program.

The overarching goal of the revitalized Westar Lectureship program is to connect the exciting developments in astronomy more closely with the general public in under-served areas of the country, with a special eye toward engaging Aboriginal Canadians whenever we can. We hope to delight people with the spectacular progress being made in our subject, fill them with pride in the fact that so much of this progress is driven by Canadians, and ignite an interest in STEM-related subjects. The first Westar Lectureship in the new series occurred last month in Ayamdigut (Whitehorse). By all accounts it was a tremendous success, and CASCA offers its congratulations to Westar Lecturer Dr. Christa Van Laerhoven, University of Toronto graduate students Jielai Zhang and Heidi White (who organized the teacher training seminar), and Julie Boldoc-Duval, who coordinated much of the activity as part of the Dunlap/CASCA Discover the Universe program. The Westar Lectureship has had a great start, and we very much hope that many CASCA members will step-up and volunteer to be Westar Lecturers in the future.

Returning now to TMT, it’s clear that the situation is serious, though how serious will only be known once the legal situation in Hawaii becomes clearer. In the meantime, the project is focusing on learning more about the properties of an alternative site on La Palma in the Canary Islands (see Anecdote 1 below). CASCA organized a ‘tiger team’ committee to look at the qualities of several alternative sites. This committee did a great job, looking carefully at a lot of data in a short time, and we owe them our thanks. The conclusions have been summarized in a mailing sent to the CASCA exploder, and it’s fair to say that the lower altitude of La Palma is a source of concern to those astronomers who see their ground-based future as heavily weighted toward activity in the mid-infrared. On the other hand, it looks like building on La Palma may result in significant cost savings, which may make the project much more affordable (an important factor, as the delay in construction is costing money, leaving the project short of funds).

If you’ve read this far and have concluded that a lot is going on while we wait for the legal situation in Hawaii to untangle itself: you’re right. Don’t even get me started on things like the fallout from the shuffling of Canadian members on the TMT board of directors. I think a lot of this gets down to the understandable fact that impassioned and smart people who have given years of their lives to the TMT project find it incredibly frustrating to be stuck playing the waiting game. I’ve spoken to most of the principals in the international partnership, consulted with all the relevant CASCA committees, and spoken to many of you personally about TMT, and it’s clear that there is a huge range of views on how best to handle the uncertainty while we await the convergence of the legal process in Hawaii. However, one thing that everybody in Canada that I’ve spoken to agrees on is the importance of operating within the framework of the Long Range Plan (LRP). The LRP gives us a degree of coherence that other disciplines envy, and this coherence has led to much of our success (which is bibliometrically analyzed in excruciating detail in… the Long Range Plan).

Nobody who helped put the LRP together figured we live in a Universe where large technical projects come together with anything like perfect smoothness. Essentially all big science projects face technical and/or financial challenges. A perfect example that is close to home is the James Webb Space Telescope. I returned from the Advisory Committee meeting for this a few weeks ago and can assure you the project looks to be in great shape. But talk to me sometime about its near-death experience five years ago, which was far more serious than what TMT is facing now. More often than not, these big projects face multiple crises. Seeing them through to successful conclusions takes planning, flexibility and grit. Scientists who have been through this before ‘get’ this, and fortunately our government sponsors get it too. Challenges are to be expected, but keeping our heads in the sand helps nobody, so we need to have a system in place for both keeping an eye on things and devising ways to navigate the way forward when things get tricky. In our community, this is handled by the Long-Range Plan Implementation Committee (LRPIC). The LRPIC is an important part of our system, and of course the LRPIC is keeping a close eye on TMT right now.

Monitoring progress (and being prepared to undertake course corrections) will be important to the ultimate success of TMT, but it’s also crucially important for the community to have a clear sense for what is going on. Up until recently, informing the community about what has been going on with the TMT project has been handled informally (via various private mailing lists) but that’s just not the right way to communicate progress on such an important project with so many stakeholders (academic, industrial, and government). So I’m pleased to be able to report that CASCA and ACURA are working together to form a Canadian TMT Advisory Committee which will have two big roles: (1) It will continuously assess progress, making sure TMT meets the scientific, technical and strategic goals set out in the Long-range Plan, and it will feed this information to the LRPIC; (2) It will act as a conduit for consulting with and informing the community about the state of the TMT project, via regular updates and Webex ‘town hall’ style meetings. The composition of the Canadian TMT Advisory Committee is coming together as I write this and I think it’s going to be an important committee. If you’re asked to serve on it, please say yes. In any case, I think we all share the hope that this committee will keep the CASCA membership so well informed that I won’t find it necessary to write such a long-winded President’s Message in the future!

With best wishes for the holidays and for a wonderful 2017,

Roberto Abraham

Anecdote 1: I confess that I love La Palma. I obtained the data for my PhD from the (newly-commissioned) William Herschel Telescope there back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This first-year grad student came back from his first observing run with a tape full of 0.7 arcsec FWHM images of BL Lac host galaxies, several bottles of duty-free Rioja, a tan, a huge head start on a thesis, and a big smile.

President’s Report

By Bob Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2016)

Well, this is my first President’s Message, and even though I’ve only been in the job for ten days, it’s been enough time to learn two things:

(1) Many things that Chris Wilson made look effortless are hard work! We all owe her our thanks.

(2) Being the President of CASCA is like getting dropped into the deep end of the pool. In the last ten days I’ve met with the ACURA Board and Council, worked with the JCSA and the LRPIC committees to define a strategy for moving forward on the space-based component of the plan crafted by the MTR panel, crafted a letter to the CSA’s Space Advisory Board, and have begun working with my Coalition for Astronomy Co-Chairs to devise a stategic plan for communicating our message to the Canadian Government. That message will contain the story of our community’s many successes, relay our ambitious goals for the future, and make clear how we give back to Canada in a myriad number of ways.

CASCA is a wonderful community and it’s an honour to serve you all. Our work together is made infinitely easier because of the hard-working and dedicated members of the society that do things like serve on the CASCA board and on its many committees, and because so many people pull together to organize and run national meetings. A big thank you to you all, and I look forward to serving you for the next two years.

Past-President’s Report

Wison

From/de Christine Wilson
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2016)

Hi, everyone,

I have recently returned from the 2016 CASCA meeting in Winnipeg, which was a big success! The prize winning talks were uniformly excellent. Chris Pritchet (Beals Award) gave a comprehensive talk on the progenitors of Type IA supernovae that extended from the 1993 calibration of the stretch factor that allows these objects to be used as standard candles to very recent work suggesting that single degenerate binaries are likely not the progenitors. Peter Stetson (Dunlap Award) regaled us with a historical overview of photometry, starting with the first “computers” up to his current massive and impressive “Homogeneous Photometry Project”, punctuated by periodic questions for the audience of “Who under the age of 50 knows [xxx]?” and including props such as a photographic plate and (if memory serves) a piece of a photoelectric photometer. Jaymie Matthews (Qilak Award) gave an entertaining talk on his various outreach activities, including a collaboration with a shadow puppeteer and Science 101 for residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community. Jonathan Gagné (Plaskett Medal) described his major proper motion survey to search for young brown dwarfs in nearby moving groups by combining the WISE and 2MASS near-infrared surveys and using Bayesian analysis to prioritize targets for follow-up observations.

A highlight for many of us was the banquet talk by Wilfred Buck from the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre on Ininew (Cree) constellations and the legends around them. CASCA’s new Diversity and Inclusivity Committee organized a special plenary session that was very well attended where participants were led to consider various scenarios around these issues and possible ways to act and respond. The public lecture was given by the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Professor A. McDonald, who spoke about the building and research with SNO, future research plans with SNO-lab, and what it is like to be in Stockholm during prize week. And of course the meeting was filled with contributed talks, special invited talks, and time for looking at posters. I want to congratulate the winners of the 2016 student presentation awards: best talk was won by Fraser Evans (McMaster University) for his talk “Red Misfit Galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey” and best poster was won by Nicholas Fantin (Queen’s University) for his poster “Identifying Halo White Dwarfs within the NGBS Field”.

In other news, John Hutchings of NRC-Herzberg was presented with the John H. Chapman Award of Excellence from the Canadian Space Agency in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the Canadian Space Program. The award was presented in a ceremony at the 17th Conference on Astronautics of the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI ASTRO 2016) in Ottawa, Ontario. John has led Canada’s participation in landmark missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, the International Ultraviolet Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on India’s ASTROSAT. The fact that he was able to lead so many major projects to fruition while maintaining excellent relations with international partners and a highly productive research career, is testimony to his skills, passion and perseverance. Congratulations to John on this award!

The report of the Mid-Term Review panel has been finished and released in electronic form to the community. The first draft of the French translation has been received and so we should be proceeding to print hard copies of the report very soon. I want to thank the chair of the MTR panel, Rob Thacker, and all the MTR panel members for all their time and effort to put together this excellent report. The Long Range Plan Implementation Committee has developed a 2-page summary of the report that is available for use in outreach to politicians, senior university administrators, and others who may not wish to read the whole report. The two-page summary is available in both English and French in the Long Range Plan area of the CASCA web site.

The Coalition for Canadian Astronomy has continued our outreach efforts with the new Federal Government with a letter to all new and returning MPs congratulating them on their election and introducing them to our community and Long Range Plan.

As I described in an earlier report, the Westar Lectureship is being re-instated under the guidance of the Education and Public Outreach Committee and the CASCA Board. The aim is to have the first Westar Lecture held this fall, possibly in the Yukon. Keep an eye on your inbox for information on how to apply to be a Westar Lecturer or nominate another excellent public speaker.

For updates on the various facilities that our community is involved in, such as TMT, SKA, and WFIRST, please see the committee reports on the CASCA web site or other articles in this issue.

Finally, as out-going President, I would like to thank the members of the CASCA Board and also all the CASCA committee members for their hard work on behalf of our community. I look forward to supporting our new President, Bob Abraham, and to working with the new Vice-President, Rob Thacker, and our two new Directors, Kristine Spekkens and Erik Rosolowsky.

Have a great summer!
Chris Wilson

President’s Report

Wison

By Chris Wilson, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Printemps/spring 2016)

Hi, everyone,

Spring is in the air, and that means it is time to start planning your trip to the next annual CASCA meeting, to be held this year in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Registration is now open and the abstract submission deadline is April 8. More information is available on the meeting web site. The graduate student workshop will be on May 30th, 2016 with the CASCA meeting itself May 31st – June 2nd, 2016. In addition, there will be a half-day meeting on the status and future of ground-based submillimetre astronomy in Canada on Friday, June 3rd. The meeting will be held at the historic Fort Garry Hotel, located in the heart of Winnipeg, within easy walking distance of many attractions such as The Forks and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Our new Diversity and Inclusivity Committee has drafted a meeting Code of Conduct that is being reviewed by the CASCA Board. There will also be a special plenary session on diversity and inclusivity at the meeting itself.

The Westar Lecture series is planned to resume in 2016. The new model for this series will combine a Westar lecture by an astronomer with hands-on teacher training activities offered by Discover the Universe. An ad hoc Westar committee has been formed to coordinate planning; the committee consists of Lorne Nelson for the CASCA board, Julie Bolduc-Duval for Discover the Universe, and Phil Langill from the Unviersity of Calgary. The EPO Committee will select the initial lecturers. We are planning to target more remote sites without good connections with a local university, possibly in northern Canada.

Many of you will have seen the announcement on February 16, 2016 that Vicky Kaspi has been awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. It is great to see a member of our community recognized with this high-profile national award! Vicky is also the first woman ever to be awarded the Herzberg medal. Congratulations to Vicky on this well-deserved award!

Spring is also the time when we announce our CASCA award winners. Our winners this year are

  • Chris Pritchet (University of Victoria) for the Carlyle S. Beals Award for groundbreaking research
  • Peter Stetson (NRC Herzberg) for the Dunlap Award for Innovation in Astronomical Research
  • Jonathan Gagné (Carnegie Institute for Science) for the J. S. Plaskett Medal for the most outstanding doctoral thesis
  • Jaymie Matthews (University of British Columbia) for the Qilak Award for astronomy communications, public education, and outreach
  • Ralph Pudritz (McMaster University) for the Executive Award for outstanding service

Congratulations to all our award winners and I look forward to seeing you at the CASCA meeting in Winnipeg!

Work on the report from the Mid-Term Review panel is very nearly finished. An initial draft was released to the community for a two-week comment period on February 23. The final revisions are nearly done and we expect to release the final report (electronically, English only) any day now. The report will be translated into French and printed in both official languages, which will take additional time.

Early in the new year, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy reached out to the new Federal Government, with letters to key ministers followed up by a face-to-face meeting with the Minister for Science, Kirsty Duncan, in Ottawa on February 25. We took this opportunity to introduce the minister and her staff to our long range planning process and to highlight key facilities from that plan, including the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, and WFIRST. The tone of the meeting was very cordial and the new minister appears very interested in hearing about the exciting science that our community does, which is very encouraging.

In facility news, the TMT situation continues to evolve slowly, with meetings by the TIO Board in February 2016 and the beginning of a process to review possible alternative sites for the telescope (see contribution from Ray Carlberg in this newsletter). The Canadian Space Agency celebrated the successful launch on March 17, 2016 of Hitomi (formerly known as ASTRO-H), a new Japanese X-ray telescope with which Canada is involved. The CSA has also released a Request for Proposals for Phase 0 studies for the WFIRST mission, which is an important and necessary step towards ultimately securing Canadian participation in this Dark Energy mission.

Finally, one of the annual tasks of the CASCA President as chair of the Canadian National Committee for the IAU is to submit our “Annual Performance Review” to the National Research Council. This report is important as it helps to justify the payment of our annual membership dues (29,000 Euros in 2016) to the IAU. This year we continued our tradition of excellence and achieved a rank of 3 out of 28 Canadian National Committees across a wide range of disciplines that submitted reports for 2015.