SPIE Astronomy Conference and Exhibition set for Orlando May 24-31

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Largest meeting in the world for astronomers and telescope and instrument developers features full-scale model of James Webb Space Telescope.

Learning About Other Planetary Systems from Space.

SPIE–The International Society for Optical Engineering today announced the May 24 opening of Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation 2006, the largest conference and exhibition for astronomers in the world. The event is located at the Marriott Resort and Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, with 1700 attendees and 65 exhibiting companies showcasing large ground-based telescopes, space telescopes, instruments, detectors, specialized optics and components, along with information processing technology. The symposium includes an exhibition, workshops, professional development courses, and a comprehensive conference program on:

  • Space Telescope Systems
  • Ground-based and Airborne Telescopes and Instrumentation
  • Stellar Interferometry
  • Observatory Operations
  • Adaptive Optics
  • Information Technologies
  • Detector Advancements

The week of conferences, courses, and special events include world-renowned speakers discussing the latest scientific theories, recent results and technology development supporting research on black holes, the search for life on other planets, and the evolution of the universe.

Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation 2006 features a free exhibition from Thursday 25 May through Tuesday 30 May, excluding Sunday, opening at 5:30 the first evening and starting at 10:00 am on subsequent days. The exhibition includes 65 companies showcasing technology for astronomy, photonics, optical systems, detectors and instrumentation, including Northrop Grumman, which is assembling a full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for display in front of the Marriott during the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation event.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST, leading the design and development effort under contract to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We're using new manufacturing techniques and new facilities to produce unprecedented lightweight precision optics for the Webb Telescope," said Martin Mohan, JWST program manager at Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector.

As the principal optical subcontractor on the program, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is responsible for the telescope's sophisticated mirror system, which will be folded to fit into the launch vehicle and deployed in orbit. David L. Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp said, "JWST will be the first space-based observatory to use actively controlled, segmented mirrors and our test bed telescope is designed to allow us to test this extensively on the ground."

In addition to Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace, other JWST contractors exhibiting at this SPIE event include Axsys Technologies (doing the precision machining of mirror segments), Tinsley Laboratories (performing precision grinding and polishing of the optical surfaces), ATK Space Structures (source of the mirror backing structure), and ITT (which combines the 18 segments into one big mirror). Instruments located behind the mirror capture photons to record images and spectra using a Near-Infrared Camera, a Near-Infrared Spectrograph, a Fine Guidance Sensor with Tunable Filter Module, and a Mid-Infrared Instrument – seeing objects 400 times fainter than those currently studied with large ground-based telescopes or the current generation of space-based infrared telescopes.

“Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation 2006 offers an excellent combination of conferences, courses, and exhibition to the field of astronomy,” said Janice Walker, director of events at SPIE. “Today’s space and ground-based astronomy facilities have been incredibly successful and we will hear much of their latest research in Orlando. This same community of astronomers, physicists, and engineers are building and maintaining the largest and most advanced telescopes around the world. SPIE is delighted to facilitate the next generation of astronomy systems via the shared research and personal connections available at this event.” Catherine Cesarsky, director general of European Southern Observatory (ESO) reinforces this point in her presentation abstract, which states, “From the beginning astronomy rested on collaboration and exchange of ideas across national borders.”

The morning of Thursday 25 May, Reinhard Genzel, Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik (Germany) will present a talk titled, “The Central Black Hole and Nuclear Star Cluster of the Galaxy.” Genzel states, “Evidence has been accumulating for several decades that quasars, the most luminous objects in the universe, are powered by accretion of matter onto massive black holes. I will discuss recent observations, employing adaptive optics imaging on large ground-based telescopes that prove the existence of such a massive black hole in the center of our Milky Way, beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Another highlight at the conference is a talk by Dimitri Pourbaix, Univ. Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) on 26 May called, “Space Astrometric Search with Gaia.” Gaia, the forthcoming European Space Agency mission, will take impressively high precision measurements of the position of about one billion stars over a period of five years. Gaia will also utilize multi-band photometry at a precision that makes planetary transits detectable, generating statistics that help characterize these objects.

One of the special events of note to everyone involved in scientific computing and data analysis is a keynote presentation 24 May on “The Future of Scientific Computing–a Java slant” by James Gosling, chief technology officer, vice president and fellow at Sun Microsystems. Gosling did the original design of the Java programming language, has built satellite data acquisition systems and continues to push the frontiers of computation and analysis.

On Friday 26 May, George H. Rieke, The Univ. of Arizona/Steward Observatory presents, “Learning About Other Planetary Systems from Space.” The space missions IRAS (Infrared Astronomy Satellite), HST (Hubble Space Telescope), ISO (Infrared Space Observatory), and Spitzer created a new field of direct observations of other planetary systems. According to Rieke, “The measurements made over the past 20 years have for the first time put the solar system into a broad context and let us compare its evolution and current state with many other systems of planets. I will review the discoveries made by these missions and show how they advance our understanding of how Earth formed and reached its current state. I will also illustrate the possibilities for more progress with future missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Kepler, and SIM (the Space Interferometry Mission.)”

Saturday afternoon, 27 May, begins with a plenary presentation by Catherine Cesarsky, director general of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on “Astronomy in Europe: Status and Prospects.” Europe provides astronomers with world-class facilities through ESO and the European Space Agency (ESA), including ground facilities like the VLT /VLTI in operation, ALMA in construction and ELT/OWL under study, to space missions such as XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL in operation, Herschel-Planck in construction, missions like Gaia in development and a whole set of new ideas encompassed in the new ESA Cosmic Vision.

The "big question" that the average person will ask an astronomer today is, "Are there Earth-like planets?" followed immediately by "is there life on those planets?" Wesley A. Traub, Jet Propulsion Lab. (USA) will delve into these issues during his talk on 26 May titled, “Direct Imaging of Earth-like Planets from Space (TPF-C).” Traub stated, “To answer the questions, is a given planet habitable, and does it show signs of life, we will need the Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph (TPF-C) and TPF Interferometer (TPF-I) missions. These missions can isolated the light of the planet from the confusion of otherwise blinding starlight, and only these missions can perform spectroscopy on the planets. Visible and thermal infrared spectroscopy will tell us if a planet is habitable and shows signs of life. This talk will focus on the imaging capabilities of TPF-C, following the photon from the telescope to the starlight suppression system to the spectroscopic detection back end, benefiting from new inventions in optics.”

For many people, the talk titled, “The Search for Life on Extra-Solar Planets” by Sara Seager, Carnegie Institution of Washington on 26 May will be of great interest, too. Modern day astronomers are working to find and characterize Earth-like planets around sun-like stars. Characterization of a planet means obtaining a spectrum to identify atmospheric or surface biosignatures–possible evidence of life or habitability. Earth's biosignatures are oxygen, ozone, water vapor, vegetation, carbon dioxide and methane absorption. Seager notes that, “Although Earth is the canonical example used to plan the search for life on extrasolar planets, Earth itself has appeared quite different over the past 4.5 billion years, including extreme climates (e.g., "snowball Earth") as well as an atmosphere without oxygen and possibly rich in methane. Beyond Earth, the first extrasolar planets capable of hosting life could well be discovered in the very near future: massive rocky planets in close orbits around small, dim stars.”

Norman Thagard, M.D., a retired NASA Astronaut and current Professor of Electrical Engineering and Associate Dean at the Florida A&M University will provide the banquet presentation the evening of 26 May. Thagard logged over 140 days in space during five space flights, including one lasting 115 days, which was the longest space flight by a U.S. astronaut. He also was the first American to fly in the Russian space program, launching on a Soyuz rocket on the Russian Mir 18 mission.

To complement the conferences, courses and exhibition, the SPIE Technical Group Meeting on Adaptive Optics, Chaired by Scot Olivier, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is holding an evening meeting on 25 May to discuss new adaptive optics technologies, lessons learned, and strategies to develop the next generation of optics methods, components and systems for large telescopes.

For further information on this event go to spie.org/events/as or send email to info@spie.org. On-site registration is available at the Orlando Marriott Resort and Conference Center, Orlando, Florida.

About SPIE

SPIE – The International Society for Optical Engineering is a not-for-profit professional society that has become the largest international force for the exchange, collection and dissemination of knowledge in optics, photonics and imaging. Founded in 1955, SPIE organizes technical conferences around the world and publishes journals, books and proceedings, with technical papers available for download via the SPIE Digital Library. See spie.org for more details.


Peter Hallett, 206-280-7475

Stacey Crockett, 360-676-3290

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