Letter From the Director

Welcome to the DiRAC Institute newsletter. As we head towards the winter solstice, if you were lucky with the clouds and the near full moon, you may have seen the Geminid meteor shower which peaked early in the morning of December 14th. The meteors you saw streaking across the sky are the results of debris burning up in our atmosphere, shed from the asteroid (3200) Paethon. 

We have been getting quite a few questions about another set of streaks and objects that cross the sky, the Starlink satellites. These satellites are the first of a new generation of communication satellites that will be launched over the next few years. If you get the chance to see them just after launch they appear as a train of bright dots that move rapidly across the sky. They are a spectacular view but, given the sensitivities of professional astronomical telescopes and instruments, if the numbers of satellites reach the tens of thousands that have been proposed they could pose a significant challenge for future astronomical observations. Some of our Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) scientists are working to understand the impact these constellations of satellites might have on LSST science and ways we might mitigate these effects.

In the context of the LSST, we recently had the opportunity to present some of our ideas and work on new ways of thinking about astronomy in the era of big-data. At the Petabytes-to-Science conference in October, Mario Jurić and Dino Bektešević demonstrated their work on frameworks that can use the cloud to process the mass of images that will come from LSST and then stream and analyze the millions of “events” (e.g. supernova, variable stars, and asteroids) that will be discovered from these images.

Looking forward, many of the researchers in DiRAC are busily preparing for the next American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in January. At the AAS, DiRAC will be hosting a workshop to introduce the 2nd edition of our machine learning for astronomy textbook (the “astroML book”) which was released in December. Our newest DiRAC Fellows, Kyle Boone and Keaton Bell (who is also an NSF postdoctoral fellow), will be presenting their research on supernova cosmology and the seismology of stars. Perhaps the most fun project that we will be presenting resulted from an idea to see if, by working as a group and using the big-data analysis tools developed at DiRAC and the data from the Zwicky Transient Facility, we could find new examples of the mysterious Tabby’s star (one of the most unusual variable stars in our galaxy). Watching a group of researchers collaboratively explore massive data sets in real time (collaboratively means lots of yelling of ideas and laughing) is a wonderful thing. You can read more about this fascinating work from Meredith Rawls a little later in this newsletter.

I hope you will enjoy reading about the research that is ongoing at DiRAC (38 publications this year) and will join us for some of the public events we have planned for coming year.


Andrew Connolly

Professor, Department of Astronomy

Director, DiRAC Institute

Read all December Newsletter articles here