The SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation Conference (#SPIEAstro) in Edinburgh

The SPIE Conference on Astronomical Instrumentation (hereafter #SPIEastro) was held in Edinburgh, Scotland from June 26th to July 1st. Over 2400 astronomers and engineers from academia and industry attended the conference this year. The conference is held biannually by SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics. The main goal of #SPIEastro is to provide an avenue for the developers of astronomically related technologies to discuss their newest results, and the newest topics in hardware, software, and organizational infrastructure for astronomy across all wavelengths, from the smallest telescopes to the largest, from ground-based to space-based observatories of all shapes and sizes. In short: #SPIEastro is for all things astrotech.

This astrobite gives a general glimpse of #SPIEastro in 2016, the goal being to give you a general feel what #SPIEastro is all about. For more technical details, the interested reader can find much more material in the following links:

The #SPIEastro conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Figure 1: The #SPIEastro conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A conference focused on instrumentation for astronomy, across different subfields

The #SPIEastro conference is unique amongst other astronomy conferences in many ways. First, it is large—up there with the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meetings. However, unlike the AAS meetings which in a sense cover everything in astronomy, #SPIEastro focuses its scope on astronomy-technology. It’s an avenue where instrumentalists can share amongst their peers their latest results, and the status of their instruments before, during, or after commissioning. What worked? What hasn’t? What drives the instrument design? What capabilities will this new technology enable? What questions can this technology answer? Discussing instrument designs, and questions like these helps avoiding design flaws and minimizes wasted efforts at suboptimal solutions, reducing efforts at reinventing the wheel. Let’s reuse the wheel, and focus on the exciting things.

Besides the numerous poster and parallel talk sessions, #SPIEastro—like other SPIE conferences—features a dedicated vendor exhibit. For two days, vendors and suppliers of astronomy-related technologies (e.g., suppliers of telescopes, domes, detectors, filters, optical fibers, glass, cryo-coolers, etc.) had a dedicated exhibit room to display and showcase their products. A place where academia meshes seamlessly with industry, and a place where lots of business cards fly around, the vendor exhibit at #SPIEastro is a good place for job-hunting for candidates on the job-market. Also: lots of free swag!

Figure 2: The #SPIEastro conference features a dedicated vendor exhibit—and bagpipes in Scotland of course.

Figure 2: The #SPIEastro conference features a dedicated vendor exhibit—and bagpipes.

New telescopes and instruments for ground and space

You can cover a lot of ground in 6 days of parallel talk and poster sessions.

Amongst others, there were many talks about the current status of space observatories, and notably so on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is on track for launch in late 2018 (Figure 3). Exciting emerging technologies were presented and discussed for future space-based missions, such as star-shades, better coronagraphs, future adaptive optics systems. Additionally, the status of concepts for future large-size space missions, e.g. the Far-IR surveyor, LUVOIR, HabEx, and X-ray Surveyor were discussed.

There were also many talks and posters on ground-based technologies. The presence and usefulness of photonics in astronomy was highlighted and featured in many talks. Photonics—the study and use of devices that steer and control light as it propagates through materials—is on the rise; the relatively new sub-field of Astrophotonics is emerging, and shows a lot of promise.

Needless to say, there were many more topics discussed—you can find the full list of abstracts here.

Figure 3: The much-anticipated JWST telescope is on track for launch in 2018.

Figure 3: The much-anticipated JWST telescope is on track for launch in 2018.

A look towards the future: the era of Extremely Large Telescopes and space-based direct imaging missions

The progress of astronomy throughout history has gone hand-in-hand with improvements in technology. At #SPIEastro there were many talks discussing the technology of tomorrow, and our visions towards the future.

One thing is clear: astronomy is moving towards larger apertures. The 10m telescopes of today will be the 4m telescopes of tomorrow; we are progressing into the era of extremely large telescopes (ELTs). These new telescopes and related instruments will help us push the limits of what we know about the Universe: we can characterize the variations of physical constants throughout cosmic time; we can look for rocky exoplanets in the habitable zone, and measure the constituents of their atmospheres; we can start to more precisely answer questions like: Are we alone? How did the universe begin? How will it end?

These are compelling questions. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, said Carl Sagan. With improved instrumentation, and an increased understanding of the data delivered from these instruments, we are taking strides towards answering these questions. So, see you in Austin, Texas at the next #SPIEastro in 2018 for the newest updates on astronomical instrumentation.

About Gudmundur Stefansson

I am a second year Ph.D. student in Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, where I work with Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan on building and testing various subsystems for the Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF) spectrograph. I did my B.Sc. in Physics at University of Iceland where I fabricated integrated optical devices with applications in biosensing in a nano-fabrication lab. When I'm not building instruments or writing for Astrobites, I try to get better at (timelapse) photography and MMA.

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