Latest Space Discoveries, Mission Updates Revealed at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation

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Research advances enabling study of the origins of the universe, discovery of exoplanets, and surveys of distant galaxies were reported at ‘the’ event for the astronomical instrumentation community.

Last week’s SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation symposium in Amsterdam – viewed by the community as its essential event -- drew 2,300 attendees to the Amsterdam RAI conference center. The event ran 1-6 July and included updates on the latest instruments and active astronomical missions, the biennial event’s largest-yet exhibition of systems and devices, and a salute to the visionaries of the field who paved the way.

Astronomical space- and ground-based facilities look back into the origins of the universe, search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system, study black holes, dark matter, and much more, yielding discoveries that inspire and intrigue those in the field and non-scientists as well. That theme was repeated often throughout the week, beginning with the first plenary speaker, Heidi Hammel (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy). She gave an update on the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.

"High-profile astronomy missions inspire kids in elementary school to become the scientists of the future," Hammel said. "This doesn't necessarily mean that they end up working in astronomy. They might work on carbon nanotubes or solar panels, but astronomy can serve as a 'first love' of scientific research and discovery.”

Other technical highlights included:

  •     Thijs de Graauw reporting on the ALMA telescope, whose team provided a motorized Lego-built model of the telescope in their booth in the exhibition
  •     Thomas (Nick) Gautier (Jet Propulsion Lab) with a review of the Kepler Exoplanet Survey, in operation for 3 years, with 2,321 exoplanet candidates identified so far, and 61 confirmed
  •     Ben Oppenheimer (American Museum of Natural History Department of Astrophysics, in collaboration with the museum, the California Institute of Technology, and the Jet Propulsion Lab) with images from Project 1640 demonstrating a new technique that creates extremely precise "dark holes" around stars of interest
  •     Werner Hofmann (Max-Planck-Institut für Mikrostrukturtechnik) , highlighting research in gamma ray detection at the High-Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) project in Namibia, which is anticipating “first light” later this month
  •     Women in Optics reception speaker Sarah Kendrew (Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie) on initiatives such as the "dotAstronomy" conference series and the Zooniverse citizen science initiative Milky Way Project –collaborative projects performed with new sets of internet-based tools enabling formal and informal teams to approach complex problems, share information, and manage data (See Kendrew's blog post about the astronomy meeting.)
  •     Paolo De Bernardis (Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza") on study of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a relic of the very early universe -- fewer than four nanoseconds after the Big Bang
  •     John Storey University of South Wales) on astronomy projects based in Antarctica
  •     Didier Queloz (University of Geneva) detailing spectroscopic and transit survey techniques that can measure the size and mass of exoplanets enabling "a new paradigm about the formation, structure and composition of planets"

See slides from the plenary talks in the SPIE Newsroom at and read more about the talks in the daily news from on-site at

A highlight of the 92-company exhibition was the Dutch Eyes in the Sky pavilion, showcasing several Dutch space agencies and companies. Exhibitors included key industry suppliers of devices and components for large ground-based telescopes, ground instruments, astronomy information technologies, space telescopes and instruments, detectors, and specialized optics materials and systems.

Conference dinner speaker Jason Spyromillo (European Southern Observatory) led a tribute to the first visionaries of the field who dreamed of putting together large telescopes that are now being built. His entertaining talk highlighted the sometimes competing expectations between the engineers and the scientists, past and present, who set the vision and the implementers who fulfill the vision. In addition to the early dreamers of the past, he proposed a toast to a current visionary, Jerry Nelson, Univ. of California/Santa Cruz and project scientist of the Thirty Meter Telescope, scheduled for completion in 2018.

Conference proceedings are being published individually in the SPIE Digital Library as soon as approved after the meeting, and also in collected print and digital volumes and collections

SPIE Astronomical 2014 will be held in Montreal, Canada, on 21-27 June, at the Palais des congres de Montreal.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 225,000 constituents from approximately 150 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional growth, and patent precedent. SPIE provided over $2.7 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2011.

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