ALMA Community Days, ESO

Last Week I had the pleasure of visiting ESO Headquarters in Garching bei Müchen, (Germany).  They were hosting their ALMA Community Days, a two day “mini” conference. The topic of these community days was “Towards Early Science” and that’s because at the end of March ALMA put out its very first call for proposals (wooo!!!) named cycle 0.

I figure the easiest way to get across all the information we were given over these two day (and to keep it entertaining) is to do a short travel diary. (If you’re interested in just the science skip day one).

Day One: Travelling caused exactly zero change in my morning routine e.g. Get up, walk to town, get on a train headed to Manchester. Airports are airports so I won’t bore you with what I did there except to say travelling with only hand luggage and the invention of automated check in machines makes your life very easy!

The Lufthansa flight was nice and uneventful plus, considering my last two instances of international travel were Manchester-Sydney and Manchester-Hong Kong, at ~2 hours really short. Off the plane, no baggage to collect so straight out and on to the S-Bahn which recommended I go to Munich then come back out to Garching… who am I to argue.

I got to Garching shortly after leaving Munich (because in Germany the trains run on time! A totally alien concept for someone who uses FTPE everyday). Garching is a pretty little town as I hope these pictures illustrate.

After I’d got to my hotel and importantly got the WiFi password from the front desk, Twitter came to my rescue as I was at a lost for what to do till the community days started the following day. Luckily @Astronomer was at ESO already along with fellow UK ARC member, Jaime Pineda and a whole bunch of other ESO fellows! So I joined those guys for a curry* which was good fun.

Day Two: The first day of the conference comprised of talks from 0900 to 1720. I won’t list everything that happened but here are some interesting bits taken from my pages of notes from the day.

  • Cycle 0 specs were recapped, 16 antennas, 400m baselines, bands 3,6,7 and 9 observations. See for full details.
  • So soon after the announcement of cycle 0 observations there was talk of cycle 1, when ALMA will possibly have >40 dishes and spend 75% of its time on Science. Which is something to look forward to next year!
  • Thanks to an unusually cloudy day at the ALMA site observations of the Sun were made, despite the ALMA antennas not yet having solar filters fitted (the clouds being used as a substitute) and in the resulting images you could make out Solar prominences and regions on activity of the surface which were highly comparable to the NASA SDO satellite images made at the same time!
  • Finally, for those of us who like a bit of public outreach, the ALMA proposal review committee are keen on astronomers pointing out in their proposals how the science they intend to do can be used to engage the public with ALMA and the science ALMA can do! Whilst this won’t be taken into consideration for time allocation, it is nothing but a GOOD things as hopefully it will boost the public profile of ALMA and shine yet another spotlight on the wonder that is modern astronomy!

The afternoon comprised of Science Talks surrounding the various aspects of what ALMA is capable of, but this really deserves a post of its own so … watch this space! Until then here is an angry looking me outside the ESO sign trying not to get run over (and in my Jodcast t-shirt!).

Day Three: This day was a day of tutorials, for A) the Observing Tool (OT) and  B) Simulations of ALMA observations. The OT is a piece of software which will be used by astronomers to plan and submit their observations with ALMA. If their proposals are approved then the OT also allows user to perform the in-depth observation scheduling needed by the telescope. (I could write a whole article about how clever this software is but I recommend reading this webpage instead!).

When proposing observations it is useful to have some indication of the types of observations you hope to achieve. This can be achieved by comparison to previous work or through simulation. As ALMA is a new array simulations are going to be prominent in the early rounds of proposals whilst comparisons to existing mm/sub-mm arrays cannot reliably be made yet.

I was a tutor in the simulator tutorial where I gave a short demo of the Observing Support Tool (OST) a web based simulator we are hosting in Manchester. (Another really clever piece of software which I could also go on and on about!  I’m one of the people charged with the task of keeping it ticking over, the machine it runs on is on a desk about 2m in front of mine so I can literally keep an eye on it). These next two pictures show a really rough simulation I did using the OST of what you’d see if there was a really massive pint somewhere in the Galaxy with the original image on the left and the simulated observation on the right.

These sessions seemed to go pretty well and everyone got on well with the OST and the more heavy weight simulation task simdata in CASA. We ended at 1630 and I had that same worn out feeling I used to get at the end of a day of teaching undergraduate Lab (however the participants in this days tutorials were much much more inclined to being there!).

Day Four: Up at 0600, on a bus at 0637, on a train at 0702, on a plane at 0915, on another train at 1105, another bus 1200, home! Travelling with only hand luggage FTW!

* Of all the places in the world I’ve eaten an Indian style curry Germany now ranks 2nd! The full count down goes 1st UK (Manchester/Bradford), 2nd Germany, 3rd Canada and 4th the USA (sorry USA but I’ve yet to have a good curry in your nation).


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