Thursday, 5 March 2015

ESO Planetary Sciences Workshop 2015

The purpose of my visit to Santiago this spring was to present an invited talk at the ESO “Planets 2015” workshop, known as a “Joint Venture in Planetary Science” between space-based and ground-based observatories.  Organised by Eric Villard (ESO and ALMA) and Olivier Witasse (ESA, and the new project scientist for JUICE), this meeting brought around 80 planetary scientists together for four days in the ESO Vitacura office.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet people and forge new collaborations, and certainly one of the best meetings I’ve been to in a long time.  Several of us were live-tweeting the meeting, so the highlights can be found there, or via this link on storify.

Science Sessions

Following a keynote talk by Mike Mumma from Goddard Center for Astrobiology, the days were subdivided into science sessions and facility sessions, punctuated by healthy coffee breaks and lunch sessions sat in the gardens surrounding the ESO office.  Monday covered giant planets, where I delivered an overview talk on synergistic studies of dynamics, chemistry and origins from spacecraft and telescopes (I’ll try to summarise that at some point), Imke de Pater revealed gorgeous VLA images of Jupiter; Gordy Bjoraker showed high-resolution 5-µm spectra of Jupiter and Saturn; and Ted Kostiuk gave an overview of atmosphere-auroral interconnections via infrared spectroscopy.  Tuesday’s science session covered terrestrial planet atmospheres (including a Doppler velocimetry technique to measure winds using visible spectroscopy), focussing on Venus and Mars, but with some fascinating ALMA results on Titan (Cordiner) and Io (Moulet), and Katherine de Kleer’s long-term program to monitor Io’s volcanic activity in the L and M band (3-5 µm) using Keck and Gemini.

On Wednesday we venerated into the realm of asteroids, TNOs and comets, including radar observations of asteroids where Benner produced 3-D printed versions of asteroid Bennu (the destination for the OSIRIS-REx mission, due to launch in the next couple of years) showing an equatorial bulge and distinct ‘boulder’ on the surface.  We heard about the jovian trojans and hildas, asteroid families that I know very little about; the discoveries of rings around the centaurs (Chariklo and Chiron); and the prospects for detailed studies of Trans-Neptunian objects.  I learned that many of the Kuiper Belt objects featured small satellites, whose names were completely new to me.  Finally, on Thursday we ventured briefly into exoplanets and planetary formation.  The science sessions had covered a very wide range, and I felt I learned the most from the review/overview presentations rather than the more detailed science talks.  If this meeting were to happen again, a stronger emphasis on review and forward thinking, rather than focussing on your own research, might be the way to go.

Facility Sessions

In contrast, I got a lot more out of the four facility sessions.  As we were sat listening to the presentations on the various observatories, I could see many people in the audience thinking of new ways to study their fields, me included.  Monday afternoon served to pique my curiosity about ALMA, as Eric Villard presented the capabilities of ALMA for planetary science (more on that in a later blog post).  We heard talks on:

  •    The Mauna Kea sub-millimetre valley (SMA, JCMT and CSO) by Mark Gurwell; 
  •    Eliot Young reviewed NASA’s ideas for balloon-borne planetary observatories;
  •    The US NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) facilities, including the VLA, VLBA and Green Bank Telescope (Butler);
  •    The SOFIA observatory and its instrument suite (Reach);
  •    Ground-based support for Cassini and Juno (Orton);
  •    Use of the deep space network for both telemetry and science via radio link (Lasio);
  •    Instrumentation roadmaps and plans for the Paranal observatory (VLT) in contrast to Keck and Gemini (Dumas);
  •    Plans for the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (Tokunaga);
  •    The capabilities of the Large Binocular Telescope and Interferometer (LBTI) for high angular resolution studies (Conrad);
  •    IRAM for millimetre studies (Boissier);
  •    The prospects for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for solar system science (Stansberry).

Having experts in these facilities in the same room as the science users proved to be an excellent idea. I had so many useful discussions over coffee and lunch that my to-do list is now enormous.  ALMA, although heavily oversubscribed, is particularly exciting and it would be great to use it for giant planet science.  I got to talk to the instrument scientists in charge of the VISIR renovation and recommissioning (a work-horse of mine for infrared imaging and spectroscopy) and hopefully instilled an excitement for looking at Jupiter and Saturn soon (time awarded in the next semester).  I discussed our SOFIA/FORCAST data on Jupiter with SOFIA specialists, which we’ll use to study deep circulations.  I met with Japanese colleagues working on Subaru/COMICS Saturn imaging (which I actually acquired, along with Glenn Orton, from the summit of Mauna Kea in January 2008), investigating the changing brightness of Saturn’s rings as a function of season.  I met others working on VLT/SPHERE observations and struggling (as I am) with data reduction.  I caught up with a colleague working on exoplanet observations (who just happened to be in Santiago on his way to the VLT), and with colleagues working on Cassini/CIRS, and had lengthy discussions about organisation for ground-based supporting observations for the Juno mission.  On that topic, one of my first tasks when I get back to Oxford is to draft a white paper to try to convince observatories to support this mission.

The last day of the meeting featured a talk from Will Grundy on the New Horizons mission, particularly the heroic ground-based efforts from John Spencer and other to identify a suitable KBO target for a second flyby after Pluto.  Two candidates were found (PT1 and PT3), ultimately using lots of Hubble time.  But the idea that the Pluto encounter is already underway, and that this whole system will be gradually revealed in glorious detail over the next few months, is breathtaking.  History in the making, and a great way to end the meeting.

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