Interview Michael Wise

– Astronomy Group

Michael Wise

“Working together with astronomers, technicians, managers and students from all over the world makes this job very exciting!”

As a top NWO Institute, our mission is to “make discoveries in radio astronomy happen”. To achieve this mission, we actively collaborate with a broad and international community consisting of other scientific institutes, universities, industrial partners, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations. Within the Netherlands, we are deeply integrated into the national astronomical community and represent that community on the international level in the global radio astronomy landscape. We act as an agent on behalf of the NL community. We often lead, by foreseeing and developing new opportunities, but we also follow by helping that same NL community bring their research ideas and priorities to fruition.

Perfect combination
At ASTRON, we combine a wide range of capabilities. We do fundamental research in astronomy, and we also develop and build new instruments and facilities. Working together with astronomers, technicians, managers and students from all over the world makes this job very exciting. For me, it is the perfect combination. I get to do astronomical research which I love, but I also get to develop new instruments and techniques, and help train the next generation of astronomers. Being able to combine all these things all under one roof makes ASTRON a special place.

Benefits for society
Besides our primary tasks, doing cutting-edge astronomical research and developing world-leading new technologies, ASTRON also plays an important role in bringing these new technologies and techniques out of the purely academic realm and into our larger society. This theme of valorisation has been becoming more and more important over the last decade as our community and funding agencies have begun to fully appreciate the many potential benefits for society in our daily work.

Positive impacts
It is also an important component of justifying the sometimes large public investments made in our fundamental research and new facilities. And that’s ok! I am a scientist, and I love doing science for the sheer discovery of it, but I also enjoy knowing that our work can make other contributions to society as a whole, beyond just our research results and publications. Astronomy can enrich our experience and understanding of the universe around us and, at the same time, the technologies that we develop to make our discoveries can have real and positive impacts on people’s daily lives.

Expand the success
At the end of 2014, I took over as Head of the Astronomy Group at ASTRON from my successor Raffaella Morganti. At the time, Raffaella had just received a prestigious Advanced Research Grant from the European Research Council and wanted to step back from her management role to focus more fully on her research. During her tenure as Head, the Astronomy Group had grown substantially with the addition of several new, younger staff and many postdocs and students and was doing very well. When I took up the role, my first concern was “don’t break anything”. I wanted to make sure that the things we were doing well, we continued to do. My next thought was “What can I do to expand that success?”

New balance
Of course, I was already closely involved with several of ASTRON’s main projects, including LOFAR and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). These two projects, along with our APERture Tile In Focus (APERTIF) program to upgrade the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT), were and remain the main focus of ASTRON’s development and scientific program. Making sure that all of these projects were scientifically successful became my first priority. Before taking over as Head of the group, I had been actively involved in the development and scientific exploitation of LOFAR as well as helping manage the astronomy group itself. So for me, the big change was to find a new balance between the increased management responsibilities and my personal research and academic teaching responsibilities. Since ultimately the core purpose of the ASTRON Astronomy Group, and the metric by which its success is measured, is to do excellent research, my job is even more focused on the science than ever before!

How we work
In many ways, our three current main projects, LOFAR, APERTIF, and the SKA, perfectly illustrate how we work at ASTRON. Each of these projects are in different stages of their development. With LOFAR, we are fulfilling one of our core functions as an NWO institute and operating a cutting-edge observatory for the NL and international astronomical community. While with APERTIF, ASTRON is applying its technological developments in phased-array detectors to revitalize the WSRT facility and provide new capabilities to those same communities. Finally, with the SKA, we are looking ahead to the future of radio astronomy and using our scientific and technical expertise to help shape that future. All together, these initiatives capture how ASTRON approaches its mission of making discoveries in radio astronomy happen. We provide practical working scientific capabilities today, we are working on new developments for tomorrow, and we are always working to realize possibilities for the future.

LOFAR has been up and running in full scientific operation for almost five years now, delivering vast amounts of data to be analysed and published to the international astronomical community. Within the ASTRON Astronomy Group, our role is to be both expert users of the telescope to produce excellent science, but also to help develop and commission new capabilities for the instrument. We work closely together with members of the Radio Observatory at ASTRON as well as teams from the Research and Development division to improve the calibration, test new observing modes and software, and expand LOFAR’s capabilities by suggesting new functionalities and improvements. Although we have a relatively small team working directly on LOFAR, we contribute a lot of critical expertise and a large, global network of partners. Taken all together, we punch way above our weight! In this combined annual report, you can find a comprehensive list of publications generated by LOFAR as well as a list of the many research grants that members of the Astronomy Group have been awarded to do front-line research utilizing LOFAR data.

APERTIF (APERture Tile In Focus) is the upgrade of our current Westerbork telescopes. Using the same phased-array technology developed for LOFAR, we are in the process of outfitting the WSRT array with new detectors that will vastly increase the speed with which it can survey the sky and do in a day what it used to take an entire month to observe. This project also demonstrates that ASTRON seeks sustainable solutions for the community. Rather than shutting down and dismantling an important scientific resource such as the WSRT, we have taken advantage of our technological advances to revitalize this facility with new technical and digital capabilities. These upgrades will allow us to provide even more powerful scientific capabilities using the WSRT to the NL and international communities for years to come.

Full funding
The years 2014 and 2015 were especially important for the APERTIF project. Prior to 2014, ASTRON was actively pursuing the APERTIF design, doing feasibility and trade studies, and seeking the necessary funding to complete the project. Developing a new instrument such as APERTIF is a long-term process and often takes a substantial commitment of resources even before the full funding is secured. Consequently, these developments also bring some risk. Fortunately, in the case of APERTIF, we had strong support for the project from the ASTRON senior management and the scientific community, so that working with our partners at the University of Groningen we were able to secure the full funding. At the time of writing, the new APERTIF hardware upgrades have been completed and the commissioning process is just starting with the first all-sky surveys with the all-new WSRT slated to begin early in 2017!

Global project
The SKA is ASTRON’s most ambitious project yet. Part of our mission at ASTRON is to think strategically and be forward-looking on behalf of the Netherlands astronomy community to new opportunities. With the SKA, ASTRON is part of a truly global project to build the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope in the coming decade, and thanks to our experience with WSRT, LOFAR, and APERTIF, we are well-positioned to be one of the international leaders of the project. The SKA’s incredible increase in sensitivity will allow a wide range of transformational science and thanks to ASTRON’s strong involvement in the project the Netherlands astronomical community is well-positioned to take advantage of these new capabilities.

Years of investments
The SKA is currently in its design phase with initial construction of the first part of the telescope slated to begin in 2018. Throughout 2014 and 2015, ASTRON was actively involved in both the actual design process with many members of the R&D and Radio Observatory division making major contributions, and the definition of the scientific priorities and requirements in which various members of the Astronomy Group have played and continue to play leading roles. As with APERTIF, many of these activities were investments on the part of ASTRON in advance of the actual SKA funding. Fortunately, the scientific, technical and economic potential provided by the SKA were sufficiently compelling that the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs granted us the development budget to fund the initial design and preparation phase for the project and we are extremely grateful for their foresight and support.

This roadmap investment represents a great sign of confidence in the potential of the SKA and will enable us to build a state of the art radio facility for the next generation of astronomical researchers. It will also enable cutting-edge innovations, not just in astronomy, but in technology, ICT, and data science as well as human capital development. Through our ongoing involvement in the SKA project, ASTRON hopes to provide a truly unique capability to the Netherlands astronomical community while simultaneously leveraging our scientific and technical expertise to remain a world-leader in the field and continue our mission to make discoveries in radio astronomy happen.