President’s Message

By / par Sara Ellison (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2021)

Happy 50th Birthday CASCA! Yes, 2021 is a special year for CASCA, as we mark our half century as a Society. For those interested in a potted history of the Society, a short summary of the background leading up to CASCA’s founding, and its early years, can be found here.

The AGM offers the ideal (virtual) venue to celebrate our 50th anniversary, and several CASCA groups/committees are organizing commemorative activities. Gordon Walker (one of CASCA’s original charter members), will give a talk at the AGM banquet reflecting on 50 years of CASCA and Canadian astronomy. The AGM organizers are also inviting all charter members (many of whom are still current members – see here for a full list) to submit video recollections, sharing their memories and perspectives from those early years. For the charter members who are unfortunately no longer with us, the Heritage Committee (Chaired by Elizabeth Griffin) will be compiling short biographies in memory of our founding colleagues. In addition to this reflection upon the past, we also want to look forwards to the next half century. The Graduate Student Committee (Chaired by Carter Rhea) will be reaching out to current graduate students and postdocs to invite them to make “futurecast” videos, speculating what Canadian astronomy will look like at our 100th anniversary in 2071. Highlights from these futurecasts will also be shared at the AGM banquet. Finally, as you will have seen via the CASCA email exploder, a competition is currently open to submit an anniversary themed Zoom background that can be used during our virtual meeting in May. Submissions are due by April 20, and may be uploaded here.

Anniversary celebrations are just one facet of our AGM, which is coming up in less than 50 days (May 10-14). Dennis Crabtree and his team have been working feverishly on preparations for a stimulating and diverse meeting, that blends science, socializing and societal priorities and promises to be a conference unlike any you have attended in the past! The roster of invited speakers is nearing completion and will likely be posted on the CASCA2021 website by the time you read this. Speaker highlights include a public lecture by Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez and an indigenous cultural awareness session given by Bob Joseph (author of “21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act”, a copy of which will be given free to all participants). The deadline for abstract submission has now passed and 147 abstracts were received for oral contributions across the scientific, EPO, and EDI/Sustainability categories. The deadline for applications for dependent care support has been extended to April 15. Although the deadline for general registration extends until May 3, the Organizing Committee encourages people to register early for the conference as some information will be sent to only registered attendees via the Whova platform.

On the lobbying and engagement front, the Coalition for Canadian astronomy has been very active this last quarter. A commitment for membership and funding in the SKA is urgently needed (see the article by Kristine Spekkens on behalf of the AACS in this newsletter edition for further updates on the SKA). Since the SKA Observatory, an inter-governmental treaty-based organization, came into force in February, Canada’s lack of formal commitment (via membership and funding) means that our status within the project has effectively been reduced to “observer”, with no means to provide scientific, technical or governance input. Moreover, if we have not joined SKAO by July 2021 we will likely lose the highly desirable, and valuable, correlator contract provisionally allocated to Canada. Given this, our political and bureaucratic outreach has been focused on SKA membership and funding through much of Q4 2020 and Q1 of 2021, with a particular focus on the Ministers and Departments of Finance and Innovation, Science and Industry.

A commitment to the SKA might be made in the Federal budget itself. At present, there is no date for the 2021 budget, and the Prime Minister recently announced that the budget will not be in March or early April. If so, and based on the House of Commons calendar, the next earliest opportunity is the week of April 12, though it could be even later as on March 12 the Prime Minister said the budget date will be announced “in the coming weeks.” Regardless, assuming that it is within the 4-6 weeks that begin on April 12, the budget could set the stage for a late-May or June election. While all parties are suggesting they do not want an election, all are also getting ready, with candidate nominations picking up steam, campaign personnel starting to get appointed, and platform development underway. Regardless of the timing of the budget and a possible 2021 election, the messaging to decision-makers has focused on the fact all SKA partners except Canada have now formally or informally committed to the project and that a failure by Canada to do so by July will strongly compromise our return on investment.

The availability of our Long Range Plan 2020-2030 has been very timely in our engagement efforts, and is providing a valuable tool to signal our coordinated strategy for the next decade. As you know, the basic text of LRP2020 has been available on CASCA’s website since December 2020. The completion of the fully typeset+graphics version should be available in electronic version within a few weeks and a message will be posted to the CASCA exploder to alert our membership to its availability. Printed copies are expected about a month beyond the electronic version, at which point the Coalition will organize a mass mailing to targeted Ministers, MPs, Senators, and Departmental stakeholders, along with a cover letter from the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy, highlighting the major project opportunities in the LRP, such as SKA and CASTOR.

In addition to the pressing need for SKA funding, the CASTOR mission is also very much in need of our commitment. The next 9-12 months are critical, as the project intends to seek government approval in early 2022 and secure Canadian leadership in the mission. The Space Technology Development Program (STDP) study will start this month or next, and the call for a Phase 0 study is expected in the summer. More detail is available in the CASTOR update in the current newsletter, and there will be a dedicated Town Hall Session as part of the AGM (May 13). Students and postdocs are particularly encouraged to get involved in these efforts, as CASTOR promises to a flagship for Canadian space astronomy in the coming decade, with opportunities across the fields of astronomy, aeronautics, software development hardware design and manufacture.

Update on CASTOR

By / par Patrick Côté, John Hutchings (NRC Herzberg Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Centre)
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2021)

CASTOR continues to move forward to fulfil its ranking as the top LRP2020 priority for space astronomy. The following steps have been taken in the past quarter.

  1. The substantial technical (STDP) contract is in final stages of being signed, and is expected to kick off officially by early April. The work will advance vital mission technology and retire risks in a) advancing the opto-mechanical design for the 1m off-axis wide-field telescope; b) designing and testing the large focal plane array concept with flight-like detectors; c) lab-testing the proposed fast-steering mirror for fine guiding; d) incorporating and adding detectors to the multi-slit spectrograph in design in India; and e) developing the concept for bright-star precision photometry of exoplanet transits. The work will be in close partnership with the Indian and JPL teams.
  2. Formal discussions are now under way between CSA and ISRO on a joint mission. The agreed concept is that of CASTOR, and an initial proposed split of the hardware and operation responsibilities has been agreed, subject to more detailed discussions. Along with the anticipated detector involvement by JPL, this will form the basis of a Canada-led proposal for funding from the government. ISRO will work in close step in a proposed schedule that will see CASTOR launched in late 2027.
  3. Plans are evolving for involving the Universities via ACURA, consultation with the government via the Coalition, and outreach activities within the CASTOR science team. CASTOR will have a town-hall event (on Thursday May 13) at the upcoming virtual CASCA Annual Meeting. Talks have been given by CASTOR team members at meetings in UK and India.
  4. CSA is on track to approve and begin a phase 0 study in parallel with the technical contract work, to refine costs and detail moving into a funded phase A-E sequence to take CASTOR to launch and operation.

This year will be an important one in defining the partnership and pitching the mission to government. With its wide range of science capability, it will be a major facility for the astronomy community, and those interested in joining in are encouraged. In particular, there exist numerous opportunities for student participation; for more information, students are encouraged to attend the CASCA town hall session and/or the CaTS (Canadian Telescope Seminar) talk in June, which will be dedicated to CASTOR.

More information on the mission may be found here.