2014 and 2015 were significant years in the development of ASTRON. In 2014, we secured our current base budget from NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) for the next ten years. We also succeeded in progressing the strategic development of several key projects, like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the new Science Data Centre. In 2015, we officially opened our new building in Dwingeloo, with a visit from state secretary Dekker being one of the high points of the year. All in all, I think we can be proud of a fantastic team achievement that will put ASTRON even more firmly on the map in the years to come.
In 2014, ASTRON was successful in obtaining substantial funding for our SKA Science and Technology programme via the Netherlands National Roadmap for Large-Scale Research Facilities. Our proposal to the roadmap was submitted by a consortium that included the University of Amsterdam, University of Groningen, Leiden University, Radboud University and JIVE. The first phase of the SKA will generate images of the sky that are orders of magnitude better than any current radio telescope, covering a frequency range of 50-15000 MHz in the first instance. In South Africa, we also began the longer term process of developing support for a Mid-Frequency Aperture Array (MFAA); in particular our focus is to build a scientific demonstrator that will be placed alongside SKA1-mid, and that will enable a wide range of transient detections to be made over a wide area of sky. The science case currently prioritises: Transients, Pulsars, HI Intensity mapping and SETI research. Our contributions to other consortia, in particular the Low-Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA) are paving the way towards the realisation of SKA1-low in Western Australia. During the period of this report, Jodrell Bank Observatory (University of Manchester, UK) was chosen as the long-term Headquarters of the international SKA project.
Science Data Centre / ERCET
Our vision to build a new Science Data Centre in The Netherlands was well received by our Board, our Science Advisory Committee and NWO. It will form a new department within ASTRON, joining the Astronomy Group, Research & Development Labs, and the Radio Observatory. The new Science Data Centre – part of the Dutch top sector ‘Big Data’ – will collect and analyse huge amounts of data, generated by the radio telescopes of LOFAR, Westerbork (WSRT) and in the future the SKA. Together with IBM and the University of Groningen, ASTRON will establish the European Research Centre for Exascale Technology (ERCET) in the northern part of The Netherlands. Our ambition is to lead the European effort to exploit the huge amounts of data radio telescopes like the SKA will generate. The ability to analyse these data quickly and efficiently will also enable others to solve some of the most pressing societal and business challenges of our time. An Exascale computer with the equivalent processing power of several millions of today’s fastest computers will be required to do the job.
In 2015, secretary of state Sander Dekker of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) officially opened our new and refurbished buildings, after a construction phase of more than two years. This festive day started with a working visit of the state secretary to the LOFAR and Westerbork telescopes. Under a sunny sky, our world class and innovative instruments were presented. The official part of the programme took place at the newly built Van der Hulst Auditorium with various stakeholders present, in addition to our own staff. The programme started with the premiere of the impressive ASTRON movie “Making discoveries in Radio Astronomy happen.” During the proceedings, state secretary Dekker signed an SKA Letter of Intent, confirming The Netherlands’ intention to participate in the discussions between ministries to consider establishing an Inter-govermental agreement or treaty organisation for the SKA project.
Over the past years, as LOFAR fully entered its operational phase, we have begun to see the scientific fruits of the huge investment this telescope represents. Increasingly sophisticated calibration and imaging software written by ASTRON staff, has permitted many researchers to make stunning images of the distant universe. Our cooperation with IBM to develop a faster and more economic microserver, a project with great potential and societal relevance, was certainly a highlight of the year. With IBM, we are working together in the DOME project, supported by grants from the Dutch Ministry and the Province of Drenthe. The research effort being conducted via DOME is also finding its way into the results being generated by the SKA Science Data Processor consortium.
In 2014, our oldest radio telescope, the Dwingeloo Telescope underwent a total refurbishment of the dish and related infrastructure. Thanks to the joint efforts of national, regional and local governments, a consortium of commercial companies, not to forget the many enthusiastic volunteers of CAMRAS and our own staff, the refurbishment was completed on time and on budget. As a national monument, the telescope has a special place in the history of Dutch scientific research and in the hearts of people in Drenthe. We look forward to seeing many new results flowing from the refurbished telescope and wish CAMRAS many years of successful operations. The engagement CAMRAS enables with the community, and especially young school children will have an important impact that goes well beyond the original goals of Prof. Oort’s original vision for the telescope. In 2016, the Dwingeloo Telescope will celebrate 60 years since it was opened by Queen Juliana.
Westerbork (WSRT) Upgrade
2015 was also the year in which we decided to move forward with the upgrade of the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT). This project, APERTIF (APERture Tile In Focus) aims to increase the field of view of the current system by a factor of ~ 30. This remarkable performance gain is achieved by placing new 2-D receiver arrays (Phased Array Feeds) in the focus of each parabolic dish, instead of the single receiver element that the current system employs. We have found funding through NWO and most recently via the University of Groningen (Kapteyn Institute).
At the end of 2015, we celebrated some important scientific successes from our large all sky survey MSSS, the Multi-frequency Snapshot Sky Survey. It is the first major observing programme to be carried out with LOFAR. The primary goal of MSSS is to produce an accurate and detailed low frequency sky model – this will be used as a global sky model that forms the basis of calibrating LOFAR data. We generated around 165 refereed scientific publications, almost treble the number being written ten years ago! Several new successes were also recorded with respect to our astronomers attracting new and significant awards from both national and European sources.
Within our outreach programme, the Open Day for the general public was a great success, with 2,800 people visiting our new building under fantastic weather conditions in October. Our staff organised a lot of different activities for the public, together with their colleagues from CAMRAS, JIVE, NOVA and DOME. The “Girlsday” was another remarkable event, aimed to attract female students to consider a science or technical engineering career path. Our diversity committee also provided support for the management in looking to see how we can make ASTRON a better place for all employees – one important development was the establishment of a Code of Conduct for workshops and meetings.
JIV-ERIC and NOVA Optical/IR Group
It was good to see that JIVE became an ERIC (European Research Infrastructure Consortium) in 2015. I’m convinced that this will create several new funding lines for JIVE, and expect the institute to expand over the coming years. As a founding member of JIVE, and as its host, this is good news also for ASTRON. In the same year, NOVA also heard that their long-term funding is now also secure. Again, good news for the NOVA Optical/IR group hosted and supported by ASTRON. We are proud to contribute our resources and expertise to major new projects that will dominate the science of astronomy in the next decade, in particular the SKA and the E-ELT.
In 2015, we submitted a proposal to the European Commission to bring together the fields of astronomy and astro-particle physics, combining multi-wavelength and multi Messenger approaches. With the recent detection of gravitational waves, the vision behind this project seems to be well-founded. The EC has funded the project known as ASTERICS (Astronomy ESFRI Research Infrastructures) to the tune of 15 million euros. The project is off to a flying start, developing new software, new instruments, new technology that promises to transform the way we do science. Many new hires have been made across the various European partners, securing the influx of many new skilled people that will hopefully continue in the field. Internally, ASTRON’s success in developing and adopting the very newest technologies for our astronomical instrumentation projects continues to be the hallmark of the institutes success.
All in all, I think we can be proud of a fantastic team achievement in these years, placing ASTRON even more firmly on the map in the years to come. As you know, I will follow the future developments at ASTRON from a certain distance, since I have accepted the Sir Bernard Lovell chair in astrophysics, and Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, in Manchester, UK. For me personally, it has been a great honour and pleasure to be able to work together with the best scientists and engineers in the world, within this unique and outstanding institute, here in The Netherlands. Of course, in my new position, I will continue working together with ASTRON, especially around the SKA project. I’m looking forward to it!
Prof. Michael A. Garrett
General & Scientific Director ASTRON