Episode 30: Pretty Planetary Nebulae

with Kelebogile Bonokwane

This week we’re joined by Kelebogile Bonokwane who is a National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) Master’s student at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

Kelebogile talks with us about her MSc project on planetary nebulae. She is investigating whether binary stars sit at the heart of these magnificent structures and are responsible for their unusual shapes.

Her work utilises the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) as well as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is an all-sky survey mission designed to discover thousands of exoplanets around nearby bright stars. Kelebogile is using this data to study the central stars of planetary nebulae.

The “Starfish Nebula” Henize 2-47, a planetary nebula in Carina

Kelebogile was recently awarded the SAAO-SALT prize scholarship. She plans to do her PhD on X-ray binaries, investigating the relationship between X-ray and radio emission in order to study the accretion process and relativistic jet production.

This week’s guest

Feature Image

Planetary Nebulae He 2-47, NGC 5315, IC 4593, NGC 5307

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Related Links

NASSP is a multi-institutional postgraduate initiative funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) through the NRF. The aim of NASSP is to train graduates in astronomy, astrophysics and space science in order to contribute to national programmes. Learn more about NASSP here.

SALT: www.salt.ac.za

TESS: https://www.nasa.gov/tess-transiting-exoplanet-survey-satellite/


Social media by Sumari Hattingh.


Jacinta: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize

Dan: [00:00:08] and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Dan: [00:00:23] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies

Jacinta: [00:00:36] Hello and welcome to episode 30!

Dan: [00:00:40] Yay! Happy…Birthday? Yeah, 30th episode. Can’t really call it a birthday.

Jacinta: [00:00:49] Season 3 Episode 30.

Oh, that’s nice.

Dan: [00:00:52] Sure.

Jacinta: [00:00:53] Okay. 30. Well, we’re both in our thirties.

Dan: [00:00:55] Yes. Hubble’s 30 years old. We’re talking about Hubble! Well just a little bit. We’re talking about planetary nebula. Hubble takes nice photos.

Jacinta: [00:01:04] So I guess it was launched back in 1990 then. Yeah. Do you remember that year, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:09] Do you remember that year? Now I’m feeling old. It’s my birthday next week, happy birthday to me! Well, actually it will have been my birthday and I’ll be 36.

Jacinta: [00:01:23] I don’t remember 1990.

Dan: [00:01:25] I shouldn’t be telling people my age. Right, back to the episode.

Jacinta: [00:01:31] Before we get into the episode, what have you been up to this week, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:34] I put in a proposal for another planetarium film!

Jacinta: [00:01:37] Did you?

Dan: [00:01:39] I did. I put a funding proposal in for another planetarium film. And this time inspired by episode 28, a couple of weeks ago. The proposal for this one is African star lore. Finished. 24 minute film on African star lore. Multicultural, multilingual.

It’s going to be huge.

Jacinta: [00:01:58] I can’t wait!

Dan: [00:02:00] Yeah. Let’s hope they give me the money. Money is hard to come by. Right? What have you been up to?

Jacinta: [00:02:05] I’ve been attending the 2020 SARAO Bursary Conference. And SARAO is the South African Radio Astronomical Observatory. This happens every year and you’ve probably heard several of our episodes in the past where we’ve interviewed other people who are attending those.

So this year, of course, it’s virtual, it’s online. Just as the SAAO recent conference was online and it’s actually working pretty well. This year we have all pre-recorded quick 90 second talks, which get played in succession. And then there’s a question and answer session where people can ask us questions live and we are online to answer them.

And then we meet in this thing called Gather Town, which I hadn’t heard of before. But you’re kind of like in a video game and you’ve got your little avatar of yourself and you walk around the spaces of this online conference venue and you meet other people there and you can talk to each other. Because it turns your videos on and your sound on you talk to each other and it’s working surprisingly well, I really feel like I’m walking around and seeing these people who are on opposite sides of the world at the moment.

Dan: [00:03:10] That is weird.

Jacinta: [00:03:11] Yeah. So really well done to the organizers.

Dan: [00:03:13] Well I’m glad it’s working out.

Jacinta: [00:03:14] Yeah, it’s cool.

Obviously it doesn’t beat real life, but this is what we have to do at the moment.

So it’s working nicely.

Dan: [00:03:22] 90 second talks though!

Jacinta: [00:03:24] Yeah. That’s very quick, but at least everyone’s getting a shot to talk. So this is mainly for the post-graduate students and the post-docs who are being supported by SARAO and we meet every year and we’re hearing all about the amazing discoveries and detections that MeerKAT has been making this year.

So I think this was maybe the first time ever that we’ve had a particular session, which was this morning, dedicated just to new MeerKAT results. So, yeah, it’s the first year that they’re all just churning out and so many people have made so many different discoveries and it’s really exciting.

Dan: [00:04:00] And every is going to need an extra session.

Jacinta: [00:04:02] Hopefully. Yeah. That’s what we’re after.

Okay, so let’s get back onto this episode’s topic.

Dan: [00:04:09] So today we will be discussing?

Jacinta: [00:04:11] Today we’re going to be discussing planetary nebula, which are the endpoint of stars that are not particularly massive. So stars that are similar to the sun or maybe around two solar masses, meaning two times the mass of the sun. These stars, they don’t die in these big dramatic supernova explosions, which we often talk about. Rather, they kind of fade away.

So they start burning different elements other than hydrogen. And then they release their outer layers, which just kind of float off into space. And they are kind of lit up by the central remaining star or white dwarf, I suppose. And they create some beautiful colors that we’ve seen in pictures, particularly from Hubble.

Dan: [00:04:56] Yeah. So there’s these sort of cloudy shapes around the central star, which are in numerous different colors once they’ve been tinted. I think the shapes are incredible. They’re definitely some of the most eye catching images that come out of Hubble.

Jacinta: [00:05:13] So who are we speaking with today about these planetary nebulae?

Dan: [00:05:15] So today we are joined by an MSc student. She’s just finishing her MSc project at the University of Cape Town. And her name is Kelebogile Bonokwane. And she is from Kimberly in the Northern Cape originally, where our telescopes are. Not in Kimberley itself, but in the Northern Cape. And she’ll be talking to us about her project and some of the telescopes she’s been working on.

Jacinta: [00:05:37] Just a couple of things to mention.

First, sometimes she calls planetary nebula, PN for short. We also have a little discussion about spectrometry and photometry. So Dan, what’s the difference between those two?

Dan: [00:05:50] Photometry is basically collecting little photons of light and measuring how bright they are. And spectrometry is collecting little photons of light and measuring their frequency or wavelength.

So you can split them up into their constituent frequencies and look at the colours and frequencies, and you can tell completely different things other than just the brightness.

Jacinta: [00:06:14] You can hear some wind in the background there.

Dan: [00:06:16] It’s Cape Town. It’s summer.

Jacinta: [00:06:18] It’s very windy in Cape Town in summer.

Right. So that’s the difference between spectrometry and photometry and I think that’s all we need to know.

So let’s hear from Kelebogile.

Dan: [00:06:36] Today we’re joined by Kelebogile Bonokwane. Hello Kelebogile. Welcome!

Kelebogile: [00:06:41] Hi, thanks for having me.

Jacinta: [00:06:42] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Kelebogile: [00:06:45] I’m glad to be here.

Jacinta: [00:06:46] Can you tell us first just a little bit about yourself? Who you are, where you’re from and what your role is?

Kelebogile: [00:06:52] I am Kelebogile Virginia Stephanie Bonokwane. My mother gave me many long names.

So I am from Kimberly in the Northern Cape. I grew up in sort of a Kgosi township of Galeshewe. And right now I’m a bit of a student in transit between Masters and PhD in astrophysics. Specifically stellar astrophysics.

Dan: [00:07:20] Where are you based?

Kelebogile: [00:07:21] I am at the UCT and SAAO.

Dan: [00:07:24] So split between the South African Astronomical Observatory here with me, and at the University of Cape Town.

Jacinta: [00:07:30] With me!

Kelebogile: [00:07:32] Yes.

Dan: [00:07:33] Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about how did you get into astronomy? Where did you study your undergrad?

Jacinta: [00:07:38] What got you interested in the first place?

Kelebogile: [00:07:40] So I remember very particularly, I think I was in grade four and we were learning about the telescope and Galileo Galilei and I was like wow this is interesting!

And I sort of had this astronomy thing in my head ever since. Although I went to a technical school. So we did electrical, civil and mechanical technologies. I was like okay, maybe I might become an engineer. But I decided to just pursue astronomy instead. That’s what I found interesting. I was like, I’m going to be a scientist.

And so that’s when I came to Cape Town from Kimberley. I’ve been at UCT since undergrad. And I did physics as well as astrophysics majors in undergrad. And I decided to just stick to and pursue astronomy. It’s what I found interesting. It’s what I liked. And I wanted to be at a point later in my career where I was doing research and I was doing something that I really liked and enjoyed.

And so I am here now sort of in my post-grad continuing with astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:08:49] That’s

awesome. So what do you study? What’s your research been about so far?

Kelebogile: [00:08:53] So it’s been planetary nebulae since honours. Since my honours project. And I sort of continued with that into my Master’s project.

Dan: [00:09:04] Can you just explain for the listeners, what is a planetary nebula?

Because it’s not what you think it is, right?

Kelebogile: [00:09:10] Similar to people, stars evolve over a lifetime. They’re born and they die. And so the planetary nebulae, they are where a star evolves towards the end of its life time. And what happens is inside stars you have this constant, continuous nuclear reactions happening.

And you have these elements formed. Hydrogen, helium, the first few elements on the periodic table. So what then happens when a star becomes a planetary nebula, is that there’s been so much gravity on the star itself, that the temperature rises enough to sort of drive off the surface material off the star.

It does this through very strong winds. And so you have this expanded material of guests driven off the surface of the star and then this hard core at the center, sort of heats up this material. And that’s what you see as this glowing nebula. So that whole system is what you have as a planetary nebula. The core at the centre and this glowing nebula around it.

Dan: [00:10:20] And they have nothing to do with planets.

Kelebogile: [00:10:24] No.

Jacinta: [00:10:25] Do you know why it was named that way?

Kelebogile: [00:10:27] I’m not sure.

Dan: [00:10:28] I do. Actually I do. I mean, it was the earliest astronomers, maybe 200 years ago. I think it might’ve been William Herschel even. They were looking at these objects or seeing them through small telescopes and they looked more planet like than star like.

Because they had this extra sort of shape and colour. They’re beautiful objects, planetary nebula. We’ll post some pictures on the website. But Hubble has taken some incredible photos of planetary nebula. So I think that was why they were called planetary nebula at first.

Jacinta: [00:11:05] So it was thought that they were from planets?

Dan: [00:11:07] It was thought that they were planets. Cloudy planets or something going around a round planet. But now we know that, as you said, they’re the end point of a star’s life and have nothing to do with planets. In fact, if there was a planet there, then that probably wouldn’t end very well for


Jacinta: [00:11:23] So what do they actually look like, Kelebogile? Maybe you can tell us a bit more about the weird and wonderful shapes that they form.

Kelebogile: [00:11:31] Most planetary nebula are just spherical in structure or shape. But others have these bipolar lobes and jets, or these disks around the system. That’s what the ones look like that I’ve been studying. The sort of more interesting looking ones. The ones that have these interesting shapes that morphologies.

Jacinta: [00:11:57] And do you know why they have such strange shapes and morphologies?

Kelebogile: [00:12:01] Well, that’s sort of what we are trying to figure out. In the literature, it’s been speculated that it’s due to the stellar rotation and also others say that the magnetic field of the object can influence it. But those two scenarios don’t really support it, or wouldn’t be able to sustain that kind of shaping.

And so what’s been seen more recently is that there have been binary stars sort of discovered in these kinds of planetary nebulae. And so that’s what the basis of my research was. Trying to find binary central stars in these interesting PN  (Planetary nebulae) .

Dan: [00:12:45] Two stars within the planetary nebula itself? Or is the planetary nebula around the one star and the other star is further off?

Kelebogile: [00:12:53] Well, what you can have is the common envelope of the two stars. So most stars would reside inside of the common envelope and then the envelope can expand into the nebula and then sort of influence the shape like that. So that’s kind of what most simulations have modelled – how binaries can influence the shape of the planetary nebula.

Jacinta: [00:13:18] Okay. So there’s two stars in the very center and then the planetary nebula is very big and around both of them.

Kelebogile: [00:13:24] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:13:25] Okay.

Dan: [00:13:25] Oh right!

Jacinta: [00:13:26] Have you been looking into this problem with any particular planetary nebula?

Kelebogile: [00:13:31] Yes for my Master’s research, I looked at three objects. Hen3-1333,  Hen2-113 and Hen2-47. And Hen2-47 is the classically-known Starfish nebula. It looks like a starfish.

I looked at those because they were very interesting looking. They were all sort of multipolar in shape. So you had that interesting morphology, but also they had these extra features that added to how interesting they were and how they screamed that they must be binary central stars.

And that’s why I chose those objects. Those are the three that I looked at recently.

Dan: [00:14:15] And how are you observing them? Which telescopes are you using?

Kelebogile: [00:14:18] I used the South African Large Telescope SALT. And I also used the TESS telescope – the [Transiting] Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which is a space-based telescope. And the reason why I did that is because I wanted to do a very quantitative study.

So I got to spectroscopic data and also photometric data, to cover all bases.

Jacinta: [00:14:42] What kind of light does TESS collect? Is it optical light?

Kelebogile: [00:14:45] Yes.

Dan: [00:14:46] And it’s just collecting photometric data. So just brightnesses of stars, right? But it does that very regularly.

Kelebogile: [00:14:52] Yes, very.

Dan: [00:14:53] How regularly does it do it?

Kelebogile: [00:14:55] The data I had, it was taken at a 30 minute cadence.

And it does this continuously for about 27 and a half days.

Dan: [00:15:04] That’s amazing.

Jacinta: [00:15:05] So this satellite telescope is looking at the exoplanet every 30 minutes. Is that right?

Dan: [00:15:11] It’s looking at a field of the sky actually. So it’s looking at quite a large field of sky and it looks at it for 27 days consecutively taking an image every 30 minutes. So you’re looking at thousands of stars.

You didn’t use TESS specifically, you didn’t ask TESS to point for you. You’re just using TESS data, which they’ve released to you?

Jacinta: [00:15:31] From the archive?

Kelebogile: [00:15:32] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:15:33] And what did you find? What did you see?

Kelebogile: [00:15:35] Unfortunately, we had a non-detection in terms of finding the binary, but what we were able to do from our results is constrain the orbital period parameter.

And this is assuming that the features that we see, the shapes that we see, is because of a binary system.

Jacinta: [00:15:55] You were looking for a binary. You were trying to figure out whether these weird shapes were caused by binary stars at the center. You mentioned an orbital parameter. So you’re trying to find the amount of time it takes for the star to rotate around the other star?

Kelebogile: [00:16:09] Yes. And if you prove that does exist…

Jacinta: [00:16:13] then you’ve found a binary, right?

Kelebogile: [00:16:14] Yes.

Dan: [00:16:15] With the TESS data, you’re looking at the brightness of a star, or in this case the star at the center of a planetary nebula. And you’re looking for a change in its brightness, which will indicate that there’s another star there. Do these two stars have to be eclipsing?

I mean, does it have to be an eclipsing binary where the one passes behind the other in order for you to detect a dip in light?

Kelebogile: [00:16:37] It doesn’t necessarily have to be eclipsing, but you can tell from the sort of variation in the light curve that you make from this photometric data, if there is a signal detectable from that.

Jacinta: [00:16:54] Okay. So there could be some pattern in the light curve, even if it’s not eclipsing. Do you also look at the velocities of the stars? Like whether they’re actually wobbling?

Kelebogile: [00:17:03] Yes, so that was done with the spectroscopic data from SALT. I made radial velocity curves, and I had the light curves also to work from.

Jacinta: [00:17:15] Okay. So you’re looking at the variation in the light and whether the star is moving to figure out whether that’s a binary or not. Yes.

Dan: [00:17:22] So with SALT you’ve got a very high resolution spectrograph, a very high resolution spectrum. And from those lines, by looking at it at different times, presumably also fairly regularly, you can see  whether the star is moving towards or away from us. Correct?

Kelebogile: [00:17:38] Yes.

Dan: [00:17:39] And how regularly we were you doing that with SALT? How much data did you take from SALT?

Kelebogile: [00:17:44] It wasn’t an even sample, but the spectra that we had was taken over about 300 days. And so for the different objects, there was about 60, 58 and 35 amounts of observations. They were taken about 10 days between each observation. A little incoherent. So it was a bit of an uneven sample.

Dan: [00:18:11] So it was hard to find a sort of an easy period or pattern?

Kelebogile: [00:18:15] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:18:16] Were there any, maybe, slight hints of a binary?

Kelebogile: [00:18:20] There was for the Starfish nebula. There was this period that sort of stood out. It was 14 and a half days. What we do when we find a signal is that we try to phase up the light curve using that signal.

Jacinta: [00:18:36] Okay. So of the three planetary nebula you looked at to find binaries you’ve got “No. No. Maybe.” Is that right?

Kelebogile: [00:18:45] yes.

Dan: [00:18:46] Is the plan to carry on? Have you got plans to collect more data and try and clarify some of these things?

Kelebogile: [00:18:54] Well, because our results were saying no short periods, which is less than 10 days, we are assuming that they have very long orbital periods. And so we just need a little more data, or a lot more data! Because we have about three years of observations and we are assuming that the orbital period should be at least around thousands of days. So we need a lot more observations and monitoring with SALT to pin down if there is something.

Jacinta: [00:19:30] Okay. So your results don’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a binary. The obit of the stars around each other could be on a much longer time scale than you’ve already had a chance to look at.

Kelebogile: [00:19:40] Yes.

Dan: [00:19:40] And that wouldn’t be that long. If it’s a thousand days, that’s two and a half years or something.

That’s a slightly bigger orbit than the Earth, but not massive when you’re looking at two different stars. How big are these planetary nebula on the scale of the Solar System?

Kelebogile: [00:19:57] Very big. I guess if the Sun were to go into its planetary nebula phase, it might absorb Jupiter, I think.

Jacinta: [00:20:06] Oh, cool.

Kelebogile: [00:20:07] Yeah.

Dan: [00:20:09] That’s pretty big!

Jacinta: [00:20:10] Yeah!

Kelebogile: [00:20:12] And then there won’t be Earth by then.

Jacinta: [00:20:14] No. What would happen to the Earth?

Dan: [00:20:18] Vaporized.

Kelebogile: [00:20:19] Yeah.

Dan: [00:20:21] Vaporized.

Jacinta: [00:20:22] Yeah. I guess it would be already eaten up when the star becomes a red giant, right?

Kelebogile: [00:20:27] Yes.

Dan: [00:20:28] Is the sun expected to go into a planetary nebula phase? What are the requirements for a star to go into this phase?

Kelebogile: [00:20:36] Planetary nebulae progenitors, which are the first stages of the star are similar to the Sun. So they have similar masses, which is around two solar masses. So you would expect the Sun to follow the same evolution as a regular planetary nebula. So you would expect it to go into a planetary nebula phase.

Dan: [00:20:59] Yeah. So first it expands into this big red giant, and then that will kind of dissipate into a planetary nebula phase. Oh, that’s not a bad way to go.

Jacinta: [00:21:08] And do you know why they make all of these beautiful colors?

Kelebogile: [00:21:11] So it’s the elements often and then sometimes also the part of the spectrum it’s observed in. But for PN, from what I can tell, it’s mostly the elements.

So you have oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur making the blue, green, and red that you see. And those colors are sort of composites made. And then that’s how you see these different colors or what you would have perceived the PN to look like.

Jacinta: [00:21:44] So, do you think you would see those colors if you looked at it with your eyes or are they sort of false color images meant to represent the emission of different chemicals or elements inside the planetary nebula?

Kelebogile: [00:21:56] It would be because of that. False colors.

Jacinta: [00:21:58] Yeah. We spoke to Jayanne English a few episodes ago and she was actually one of the people at NASA who was making the image composites.

Dan: [00:22:06] And from Hubble too. So she presumably did play with some of the planetary nebula.

Jacinta: [00:22:11] Yeah, maybe even some of these planetary nebula. What are your plans for the future?

Kelebogile: [00:22:15] Well for now, I think I can only tell you about three or four years into the future.

Dan: [00:22:21] Oh, that’s more than I could say.

Kelebogile: [00:22:24] I’m starting my PhD next year, early next year. And that’s sort of going into a bit of a new field in X-ray binaries, working with X-ray and radio data. Which is something very, very new for me. But it’s an exciting challenge, I guess. But it’s still sort of sticking with stellar and binaries. Sort of a theme that I have going on.

Dan: [00:22:49] Where will you be doing that?

Kelebogile: [00:22:50] I will be at the SAAO. Okay, cool.

Jacinta: [00:22:53] Okay. Congratulations!

Okay, great. So I think when we’re nearly at the end now. Do you have any final messages for listeners?

Kelebogile: [00:23:00] Well, if they’re already listening and watching this, they’re already doing something good. But a message for them, I’d say, continue to listen and watch, learn about the science and whatever interests you in the field.

And also just continue to expose yourself to the different people that come here and tell you the paths they’ve taken to get to where they are. It can be something inspiring for you as an individual, regardless of whatever you are doing. And just continue to take care of yourself, stay safe with these times that we are in and be kind.

Jacinta: [00:23:42] That’s fantastic. Is that the advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time and see little you when you were in grade four and interested in astronomy.

Kelebogile: [00:23:51] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:23:52] Great.

Dan: [00:23:53] Thank you. And thank you for your inspiration.

Kelebogile: [00:23:55] Thank you so much.

Dan: [00:23:56] It’s greatly appreciated.

Jacinta: [00:23:58] Yeah. Thank you very much for joining us and we hope to speak to you again soon.

Kelebogile: [00:24:01] It was nice being here.

Jacinta: [00:24:11] Okay. So interesting to know that these pictures of the planetary nebula, which have fascinated me since I was also very young, are false color images.

Dan: [00:24:19] Yeah. So we’ve discussed this previously, as you mentioned, episode 17 if you want to go back and listen, and we chat to somebody who does exactly that. So it’s more than just making up some false colors to make it look pretty. It’s not just sticking it into Photoshop and making it look nice. They actually try and hold onto the science. So adjust the image according to its frequencies and then use the different colors to represent those frequencies. So you actually, to use quite a big word, ‘elucidate’.

You shed light on what exactly is going on.

Jacinta: [00:24:52] Yeah.

Dan: [00:24:53] Yeah, a great chat to Kelebogile too. It’s really cool to hear stories of people who grew up in South Africa, getting interested in astronomy at a young age, and then having the opportunity to study it and become an astronomer. It’s really special and wonderful to see.

Jacinta: [00:25:10] Yeah, definitely.

Cool. All right. Well, it was really awesome to talk to Kelebogile. 

Dan: [00:25:15] Yeah, and we’ll let you get back to your Bursary Conference. Some exciting science I’m sure coming out and hopefully we can earmark some people to interview, including yourself. And l keep trying to get you to talk about your new paper.

Jacinta: [00:25:28] It’s not accepted yet, but as soon as it is…

Dan: [00:25:30] okay. Soon, soon, soon.

Jacinta: [00:25:32] Yeah. I’ll be the guest on one of the episodes.

Dan: [00:25:36] And do let us know if there’s anything else exciting coming out of the conference.

Jacinta: [00:25:40] Oh, there is. I’ve already written a whole list of people that we need to interview on what their topics were.

Dan: [00:25:44] Ah excellent.

Jacinta: [00:25:45] And I’ll let you get back to your funding proposals.

Dan: [00:25:47] Yeah. I’m just holding thumbs at this point,

Jacinta: [00:25:52] which for those not in South Africa means crossing fingers. That’s the very South African phrase.

Dan: [00:25:57] Oh right, yeah! I alway forget that that’s a South African thing.

Jacinta: [00:26:00] Okay. Well, that’s it for today. So thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah. You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we will have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah spelled S A V A N N A H.

Dan: [00:26:22] Special thanks today to Kelebogile Bonokwane for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:26:26] Thanks to our social media manager Sumari Hattingh and all the Cosmic Savannah volunteers.

Dan: [00:26:31] Also to Mark Allnut for the music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyzcek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Jacinta: [00:26:38] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department to help keep the podcast running.

Dan: [00:26:48] You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.

And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Jacinta: [00:26:56] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah. [Music ends.]

Uh, and we also have a little discussion about photometry and spectromedy…Oh. [Laughs]

Dan: [00:27:14] Do you want to leave that in there?

Jacinta: [00:27:17] No, that can be for the bloopers.


Dan: [00:27:20] And that’s it for today. Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next step of the next ep… why is that one first?

Jacinta: [00:27:26] Cause that’s always first.

Dan: [00:27:27] Is it? It feels like it should be last.

Jacinta: [00:27:29] No, we have it again at the end. “We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.” Don’t question the method now! We’re three seasons in! [Laughing]

Dan: [00:27:40] I was like, this doesn’t make sense. It seems so final!

Jacinta: [00:27:41] It does, doesn’t it?

Dan: [00:27:43] What’s TikTok? Should we join TikTok?

Jacinta: [00:27:45] I don’t know Dan.

Dan: [00:27:47] I don’t know. I’m 36 now.

Jacinta: [00:27:49] Yeah, I’m not going to say how old I am, but I’m a bit younger than you.

Dan: [00:27:53] Not far. [Laughing]


Episode 26: Beyond 200 years of astronomy in South Africa

with Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride

Welcome to Season 3 of The Cosmic Savannah!

This week we recap our adventures over the break including the conclusion of The Cosmic Savannah podcasting boot camp and the run up to the 200th anniversary celebrations of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). Dan explains how you can get involved in the big celebrations! (See links below)

We are also joined by Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride, who describes her dizzying array of roles! These include astronomer at the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Head of Research at the SAAO, and lecturer and research supervisor at the University of Cape Town. Vanessa is also heading the organization of the 2024 International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly – the very first time this will be hosted by the African continent!

Vanessa explains her own research in the field of compact binary stars, reminding us of the wealth of astronomy and astronomical facilities right here in South Africa.

We also discuss the objectives of the OAD, acknowledging South Africa’s difficult past, in striving for an equal and inclusive future for all, in astronomy and beyond.

Featured Guest

Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride

Featured Image

A view from the front of the Main Building at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town. This view stretches back 200 years to 20 October 1820 when the observatory was first used for astronomy.

SAAO all events: saao.ac.za

SAAO 200th Anniversary Symposium: saao200.saao.ac.za

Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD): http://www.astro4dev.org/

African Astronomical Society: https://www.africanastronomicalsociety.org

Zooniverse: https://www.zooniverse.org/


Show notes prepared by Andy Firth. Transcript by Sumari Hattingh.


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama.

Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Dan: [00:00:33] Welcome to what we think is episode 26.

Jacinta: [00:00:36] Season three, episode one.

Dan: [00:00:38] That’s our debate.

Jacinta: [00:00:38] We disagree on how we’re going to number these.

Dan: [00:00:41] So whatever it’s numbered on whatever app you’re using, that’s what the number is.

Jacinta: [00:00:46] And who won. Welcome to season three, everybody!

Dan: [00:00:51] Welcome back. We have had a long break. Some of it Covid induced, some of it business induced on both of our parts. We’ve been lucky not to have Covid.

Jacinta: [00:01:03] Both of us have been very lucky.

Dan: [00:01:04] We hope you have been too.

Jacinta: [00:01:07] Yes, we hope everyone’s safe for our returning listeners. Welcome back. And for our new listeners, a warm welcome to The Cosmic Savannah family. First of all, we would like to start by asking if you like this podcast episode, can you please leave us a review on iTunes and like and subscribe and tell a friend if you can, because that’s really going to help us to spread the word and get new listeners.

Dan: [00:01:35] So we should get started with a sort of brief recap of what we’ve been up to.

Jacinta: [00:01:39] Yeah. Well, I guess why don’t we stop for our new listeners, reminding people who we are? Who are you, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:44] My name is Daniel and I am the science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory, which is based here in Cape town. And our observing site is up in Sutherland in the Northern Cape about 400 kilometers away. So that’s a dark site at high altitude. My role here at the observatory is science engagement. So promoting our research, promoting our facilities and reaching out to the public and stakeholders and trying to raise awareness of astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:02:14] You’re a reformed research astronomer.

Dan: [00:02:17] Well, there’s still…

Jacinta: [00:02:18] You’re still keeping your finger in the pot – now what’s the expression? Keeping your finger in the pot?

Dan: [00:02:26] Foot in the door? I don’t know.

Jacinta: [00:02:27] Yeah, foot in the door. That’s where I was going.

Dan: [00:02:29] I think that we’ll talk about it a little bit more now, but I’ve been very busy the last couple of years, and haven’t had a chance to do much research, but it’s certainly something that still appeals to me. And, yeah, I’d like to get back into it. Once all this is done. And yourself?

Jacinta: [00:02:47] Great. I am Jacinta.  I’m a research astronomer at the University of Cape town, UCT, and I’m a postdoctoral research fellow and I study galaxies; galaxy evolution – how galaxies have changed over the history of the universe. And I mostly use radio telescopes such as MeerKAT, which is South Africa’s incredibly powerful radio telescope in the Karoo. It’s one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world and it’s run and organized by the SARAO – the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. I actually have a SARAO fellowship and I’m from Australia, but I moved to South Africa about two years ago. That’s when we decided to start this podcast. Why did we start this podcast?

Dan: [00:03:33] I asked myself that every day. No, I mean I think we realized pretty quickly that there wasn’t enough promotion of African astronomy. There’s so much going on in this country. We’ll talk about it a bit more with our guests today, but there really is a lot to be proud of – a lot going on. That’s something which we want to share with the South African public and also the rest of the world.

Jacinta: [00:03:58] Yeah, exactly. It’s such a vibrant place to be and there’s…my blanket fort is falling down.

Dan: [00:04:07] So we’re once again doing blanket fort recording because our regular studio does not abide by Covid regulations because it’s probably only about a meter across. We can’t distance ourselves at all in there.

Jacinta: [00:04:24] No, so we’re sitting – socially distance – under blankets at the moment on the floor. Anyway, what was I talking about? Vibrancy of the South African astronomy environment. Yes. Okay. Well, yeah, that’s why I’m here. I think that it’s important that we can make this accessible to everybody, not just scientists and astronomers, but absolutely everybody because it’s super exciting what’s happening here and it’s super important as well – as we’re going to hear today with our guest, Professor Vanessa McBride.

So Vanessa is going to tell us all about the work that she does as the Head of Research for the SAAO and also her role as astronomer for the Office of Astronomy for Development – the OAD – which tries to leverage astronomy in order to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals, which was really fascinating to talk to Vanessa about.

Dan: [00:05:19] So before we get into that, maybe we should talk a little bit about what we’ve been up to in the break?

Jacinta: [00:05:24] Yeah. Good idea.

Dan: [00:05:25] What have you been up to?

Jacinta: [00:05:27] Several things. So, first of all, I have finished a research paper.

Dan: [00:05:31] Congratulations.

Jacinta: [00:05:32] Thank you. Yeah, for those who don’t know, that’s what we get paid to do. That’s what I get paid to do, is unique research and then publish it in an international journal. So I have finished a research paper, which uses the MeerKAT telescope. We’ve got some data as part of the big international collaboration and I am looking at giant radio galaxies and we found some pretty cool things, but I can’t actually tell you the results yet until it’s been accepted for publication.

So watch this space and I will be able to tell you all about it soon. The other thing I’ve been doing is running the podcasting boot camp for our wonderful Cosmic Savannah trainees. You and I, Dan, have been running this training boot camp where we’ve taught them everything from interviewing a guest to doing their own editing and creating the entire episode, publishing it, writing their show notes and social media. And we’re very, very proud of all of our boot camp graduates and you’ll have seen the results of their hard work in the mini episodes that we published during the break of the formal seasons of The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:06:41] Yeah. I mean, I think that it was a great experience for us take stock of what we’ve learned and try and share that with some younger astronomers who are excited to share their work. And I think that we’ll definitely chat more to them in the future and see what they’ve been up to.

Jacinta: [00:06:55] We’re hoping to incorporate them as regular contributors to the podcast. All right. Dan, what have you been up to?

Dan: [00:07:01] Whew, a lot. We’ll talk a little bit about it with Vanessa, but next week, when this comes out, but next week in reality too, will be the 200th anniversary of the SAAO. And that’s a that’s a big moment. I think that it’s a good time to take stock of where we’ve come from. South Africa has had a long and tumultuous history. The observatory had been operating for 200 years through all of that. It’s gone through many changes. It’s weathered many storms and produced excellent research throughout that time. I think it’s a great opportunity to look back at that but then, as we’ve been saying, it’s an excellent opportunity to look at the last couple of decades and the future, because 200 years of the astronomy in South Africa is truly world class. It’s an incredibly exciting place to be. And what’s coming in the next couple of decades is really going to be mind-blowing. So it’s a sort of nice moment to take stock. And look forward. And I think that we’ve been making a big effort – and I’ve been leading a lot of those efforts – to make a bit of a splash. So we’ll be holding various events next week to try and raise the profile of astronomy and the observatory.

Jacinta: [00:08:21] Tell us more about these events that you’ve been organizing, what events are being held for professionals and also for the public and how can people get involved and where can they find more information?

Dan: [00:08:32] There are various things underway. The first and probably biggest thing is the unveiling of the SAAO as a National Heritage Site. So in South Africa, much like you have World Heritage Sites around the world, we have National Heritage Sites recognizing the significance of a site and its cultural and heritage significance to the country. And then at the end of 2018, the SAAO was declared as a National Heritage Site and recognizing the scientific contributions over the years and that’s significance to the country and we will be unveiling this site as an official National Heritage Site on Tuesday, the 20th of October, which is 200 years to the day from the establishment of the observatory. So a big event on a big day. And we will have addresses by the Minister of Science and Innovation, the Minister of Arts and Culture and various others. We’ll be unveiling the plaque of the National Heritage Site.

Jacinta: [00:09:27] Wonderful. And how can people watch that?

Dan: [00:09:28] So it will be streamed online obviously for Covid regulations, we had planned a large in person event, but as such, we cannot proceed with that. So it will be a large online event. You will be able to link through from our website, otherwise follow the observatory on social media. We can post all those links in the show notes, but if you just go to saao.ac.za, you’ll be able to get all the information you need. Other events going on – we have a large Astronomy Symposium happening that week, which kicks off on the Tuesday and runs through to Friday. We’ve got talks from astronomers all over Africa, and we will be talking about the exciting astronomy going on. We’ll talk about the history, we’ll be talking about astronomy going on across Africa, we’ll be talking about the social impact of astronomy and the indigenous knowledge and really covering a lot of topics and we’re trying to keep it quite general and inclusive. And in that vein, it is open to all. So if any interested astronomers or, you know, amateur astronomers or anyone just interested in astronomy and what’s going on here, you’re welcome to join. That website is saao200.saao.ac.za, but basically you just go to our website and you’ll find links to everything. So yeah, that’ll be a very exciting three-and-a-half day program and anyone is welcome to join and see what we’re doing. It’ll be streamed online again, all fully virtual. It should be very exciting.

Jacinta: [00:10:53] Yeah. I’m really excited about that. So you and I will be chairing a couple of the sessions. So looking forward to hearing the contributions of everyone in that and any other events for the public?

Dan: [00:11:07] Obviously the public is of huge importance to us. And the original plan was to have a large astronomy festival this week. And obviously that can’t go ahead. We can’t have thousands of people in one space. So we have tried as much as possible to run a virtual program. And we’ve already had a couple of events: virtual storytelling we will have a series of lectures through the week, which will happen in the evenings with time for questions and the answers from the public. Those will be on our Facebook page and also streamed online on YouTube. So we encourage the public to get involved in those. We also have an astrophotography competition at every level. So you’re welcome to submit sketches or drawings or paintings, or as well as, you know, some high end astrophotography, if that’s what you’re into. And then on the last evening of the virtual festival, we will be having a virtual star party. So we all have some live stargazing, which will be streamed live. And that’ll be interspersed with music from Master Kg – who is famous in South Africa and probably in other places around the world for his recent hit Jerusalema. Our South African president even mentioned and got encouraged at the nation to get involved in doing this dance, which…

Jacinta: [00:12:17] Really? I missed that entire thing.

Dan: [00:12:20] In one of his presidential addresses, he sort of got everyone trying to do the dance. We are gonna get involved in and do our best.  I haven’t learned the dance yet.

Jacinta: [00:12:35] Well, I’ve been watching you dance around your office today. What’s your song?

Dan: [00:12:40] Well, so I’ve been dealing with an incredible…

Jacinta: [00:12:44] Little bit of stress?

Dan: [00:12:45] I’ve been dealing with it a little bit of stress. I’ve been taking a leaf out of The Beach Boys’ book and dreaming of Kokomo. Okay.

Jacinta: [00:12:56] Come on, run off a few lines for us.

Dan: [00:12:58] Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya’ to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama

Jacinta: [00:13:07] Okay, well, thank you.

Dan: [00:13:11] I’m sorry. I was just getting back.

Jacinta: [00:13:14] You were inspired by Space Force. If anyone’s seen that on Netflix.

Dan: [00:13:19] Steve Carell. Wonderful. Anyway, we should really get to work.

Jacinta: [00:13:22] We really should. Okay. Now, well, should we hear from Vanessa?

Dan: [00:13:26] Absolutely.

Jacinta: [00:13:26] All right. Let’s hear from Vanessa about the OAD – her role as Head of Research at the SAAO and several other hats that she wears, she kind of just does everything.

Dan: [00:13:36] She sure does.

Jacinta: [00:13:37] All right. Let’s hear from Vanessa.

Dan: [00:13:40] So today we’re joined by Vanessa McBride, who is based at the Office of Astronomy for Development here at the South African Astronomical Observatory. And she’ll be talking to us a little bit about what she does. Vanessa, welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.

Vanessa McBride: [00:13:58] Hi Dan. Hi, Jacinta. And nice to be here.

Jacinta: [00:14:01] Thanks very much for joining us.

Dan: [00:14:04] So Vanessa, perhaps you can just explain to us some of your wide and varied roles, with the Office of Astronomy for Development, but also for the observatory.

Vanessa McBride: [00:14:12] I’m an astronomer at the Office of Astronomy for Development. It’s one of the offices of the International Astronomical Union, which is based in Cape Town and hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

I’m, also fulfilling the role of Head of Research at the South African Astronomical Observatory. And that’s a role that allows me to try to work with other astronomers, to create an environment that’s really conducive to research at the observatory. And I also have an adjunct associate professorship at the University of Cape Town where I participate in some teaching and joint research projects at postgraduate level.

 Dan: [00:14:54] You’re right, hey, wide and various. I’m not sure where you find the time. Perhaps we should start with just talking a little bit about the Office of Astronomy for Development and what exactly, the objectives of the office are for the International Astronomical Union, also, locally. 

Vanessa McBride: [00:15:14] Okay. Well the office has been established in 2011 and really it grew out of the idea that, you know, the skills, the methods, the techniques we use, in astronomy can really be applied more broadly than just in astronomy. And it’s also, you know, comes together with the fact that as I’m sure all of us know, astronomy is interesting to a wide variety of people, it has a philosophical context to it.

It’s also part of many different cultures. And so using all of those aspects, we try to think about ways that, astronomy can influence the sustainable development goals. So look at how social economic development can be affected in some way through astronomy.

Dan: [00:16:08] What are some of the examples of these projects? I mean, I know that in the recent months and, last year, with the Covid pandemic, there have been a lot of astronomers who’ve, lent a hand in terms of modelling and trying to predict the pandemic and analyse the data. Whether those, contributions were welcome and productive, I’m not sure, but I know that a lot of astronomers, and many that I know personally got involved in that, is this the kind of thing you’re talking about, or what are some of the other examples of projects that the office runs.

Vanessa McBride: [00:16:40] Yeah, I think that’s part of it Dan. So for example, there can be sort of fields in which you can apply techniques, for example, the models and things that have been applied through Covid, these are things that are, based in differential equations.

But of course that requires specific domain knowledge, right? Which often we don’t have as astronomers. So for that reason, one of the focuses of our office is really to work in a sort of cross-disciplinary context because, we may come as astronomers with some of the skills, but we don’t always have that domain specific knowledge that you need really to make an impact.

Like we’re not up to date with medical literature, we don’t know what things they’ve tried and failed. So, we can make contributions, but it’s also important to do it in conjunction with the experts in the field. I mean, some of the other examples of how astronomy can make an impact, are kind of embodied in the three flagship projects of the OAD at the moment.

So OAD is Office of Astronomy for Development, and at the moment we have three of these kinds of projects that have crystallized over the last 10 years through a process where anyone can apply for funding to run one of these astronomy for development projects. And those projects – the first is looking at how a socio-economic development can happen around an observatory. So that may be either through, direct economic empowerment. So for example, if you have a beautiful observatory and a dark sky site, it may not be a research observatory, but it could attract tourists, for example. And those – through tourism – generate money for the local community.

Another of our flagship projects is looking at the kind of the big picture at how, if you look at the earth from space and sort of the view that astronomy gives you, how can that kind of perspective allow us to be better global citizens? And that project is being led through the European regional office of astronomy for development.

And then the last flagship project really looks at sort of data and skills in astronomy and how those transfer to other fields. So that looks at things like machine learning, data wrangling these kinds of things that we have to do in our daily lives as astronomers. But the fact is that they’re also incredibly valuable in other economic sectors and of course, in other fields of data intensive research,

Jacinta: [00:19:28] That’s absolutely fantastic Vanessa and the work of the OAD is really, really awesome. So for our listeners, could you explain a bit more about what you mean by development and I guess many people are surprised when we say that astronomy can be used for development.  I know you’ve written a lot on that in the past. Could you say a bit more about that?

Vanessa McBride: [00:19:49] Yeah. So I think it’s captured most simply in the slogan that we use in our office: “Astronomy for a better world”. And so, by development we mean improving people’s lives in some way; whether that is improving their lives by allowing them to have better the prospects for finding jobs or whether it’s improving their lives by allowing them to make additional income through an astro-tourism initiative or whether it’s improving lives through a better quality of education or access to new educational content. All of those are ways in which development can be impacted. And at the Office of Astronomy for Development, we use the United Nations’ sustainable development goals as a very broad sort of, metric for development.

You’ve probably seen some of the lovely posters; they’re very colourful posters showing these 17 development goals that range from sort of good health and wellbeing to economic empowerment through to, quality education and partnerships for the goals. So these are what we use as our definition of development in the broadest sense.

Dan: [00:21:05] How does the office implement these projects? I mean, do you take an active role? Is it a funding role? is it an advisory role where people report to you and on their progress and   on their goals and how they’re affecting the environment they’re in? I mean, is there a process of monitoring and evaluation that’s taking place to see the effect of these sorts of interventions?

Vanessa McBride: [00:21:29] To some extent there is, Dan, so at the moment, and actually since 2013, the OAD has run an annual call for proposals that is open to anyone in the world. And it’s a call for funding.

So you can suggest an Astronomy for Development proposal, in any sort of field that you want, you don’t even need to be an astronomer or have an affiliation with a university or a research institute. And then you can have a small chunk of funding. It’s usually a few thousand euros and those projects can come from anywhere in the world and they’re usually funded for a year and there is a kind of a monitoring and evaluation process – fairly simple because of course the grants that are not so big. So we don’t want to make these things too onerous for small grants. And then with the flagship projects – how we see those developing. So those are more of a sort of top down approach where we can imagine having rather large programs with a potential for a global rollout and those will have to be funded separately. At the moment we have some funding for aspects of the flagship projects, but they’re not fully funded at the moment. So we kind of have a real mixture of grassroots projects that are designed very much by the community and then these sorts of higher level projects with the potential for outside funding.

What we also did this year – because it was such an unusual year for everyone – is we had a very rapid turnaround COVID related call for proposals. So in addition to our usual call we had a call that was an attempt to try and alleviate some of the burden on people placed by the pandemic and by the lockdown.

So we had such a variety of proposals from all over the world for this funding – so it ranged from cultivating food gardens, during lockdown to making data available for remote tutoring of students at schools and universities. So a whole range of projects, really. We’re interested in this kind of funding.

Jacinta: [00:23:41] Can you give us some examples of your favourite projects?

Vanessa McBride: [00:23:45] Yeah, of course, I have a couple of favourites, but one of them that really stands out for me, is a project that was run a couple of years ago in Sierra Leone. The point of that project was to improve literacy in school aged children. And they just were very sneaky about it because they made the topic so interesting. They used astronomy as kind of the hook to just grab the interest of these school aged children and to teach them these concepts around literacy as they were going through it. So they were kind of just learning without realizing they were learning.

So that’s one of the projects I really like. Another project that I thought was really interesting was a collaboration between a group in the UK and a group in Kenya.  And the point of this was that there are many eye conditions which don’t need to leave you with a disability if they are often treated, right. But the problem is that in lots of rural regions you don’t have access to ophthalmologists or someone who can really diagnose what’s wrong with your eyes.

This project was looking at a kind of a Zooniverse approach to diagnosing these eye conditions. So they’ve made a specially adapted camera that could go on the back of a mobile phone and you could take pictures of people’s retina with this and that was done through field workers and they would then upload these pictures onto a site for classification through crowd sourcing, right. So many different people all over the world could potentially log into a browser and then learn through a simple tutorial, how to classify various of these conditions. And that way you could get a diagnosis. So this is a project, of course, it was a trial run, but seemed to work quite well.

Dan: [00:25:36] Wow that’s very cool. So for those of you who don’t know, Zooniverse is another astronomy program where you can go online and identify different astronomical objects generally galaxies with your eyes because the human eye is still quite a lot better than the normal computing techniques. So it was sort of a crowd sourced approach to gaining some astronomy knowledge. Very cool to use it for ophthalmology.

Vanessa McBride: [00:26:02] Yeah. There’s all sorts of interesting projects on the Zooniverse now, that actually have nothing to do with astronomy.

Dan: [00:26:07] Really? I haven’t been on for a while, obviously. We’ll plug it in our show notes and send some people there. So you’re juggling this sort of Astronomy for Development, but also your own research and the research of the entire observatory?

Vanessa McBride: [00:26:25] Thankfully, I don’t have to do it single-handedly, right? I think we’re very fortunate at the observatory that we have like a really dedicated and motivated bunch of people who are doing research. And of course, in addition to all the other things, like keeping the observatory running, making sure telescopes are operational. So that part of the job is kind of easy. You just have to think about ways in which we could enable people to do the best research they can.

Dan: [00:26:56] So your role is essentially to encourage researchers and enable them to do more work. And this is – we have these facilities up in Sutherland where astronomers can use them – but we’re also a national facility and we provide telescope observing time to all of the South African researchers at universities and it also researches abroad. Does that fall under your gambit or are you primarily focused on the research of the observatory itself?

Vanessa McBride: [00:27:22] No, my primary role is really to look at research of astronomers and students here at the observatory. We know we have a huge amount of people using the telescopes and the instruments in Sutherland, but it’s very important also, that our Institute provides more than just a service, right.

We don’t just provide instruments to use, but we use them ourselves and we are doing cutting edge science with those. And it’s important that we stay at the forefront because, once you really doing the cutting edge science and you know what you need to discover the next problem, it allows you to feed that knowledge back into building a telescope or an instrument that the community can really use and that you can use to do that kind of science. So we see it as a very kind of, I don’t know, yin and yang process that you really need the good science in order to make the observatory work.

Dan: [00:28:17] Did you know, that, yesterday I looked up how many research publications the observatory has produced in its 200 year history. Anyone want to guess?

Jacinta: [00:28:39] I’ve got no idea.

Vanessa McBride: [00:28:41] What, do we produce about 80 a year?

Dan: [00:28:43] So 136 last year, but 3000 in total, over the 200 year history with over 75,000 citations.

Jacinta: [00:28:47] Gosh.

Vanessa McBride: [00:28:48] Wow.

Jacinta: [00:28:49] So, fairly productive. Yeah, that’s amazing. So that brings us to the 200th anniversary of the SAAO. Vanessa, so you’re Head of Research and you’re also involved with the OAD. Can you tell us a little bit more about your insights into the history of the observatory and its role in the community, inclusivity and where we’re moving towards the future.

Vanessa McBride: [00:29:16] Thanks Jacinta. I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge on the history of the observatory, but I do think this 200 year milestone is kind of an interesting place to be because obviously the observatory was founded as guidance for the Navy – for the Admiralty in their efforts to colonize and, expand the empire. So in a way it’s got a bit of an interesting background, but yet here we are today and we’re doing this amazing science and we’re also trying to grow this community and cohort of black astronomers, which we’re just starting to see move into these professional positions. So I think it’s very exciting time to kind of look both back at the history of the observatory – where we come from – but also to look forward because it’s a moment really to shape the future of the observatory.

Dan: [00:30:16] Yeah, I think there’s something wonderful about something so old, because it does show you how things transform. As you said, it started off as essentially a time service for the Royal Navy and very quickly, in a matter of a decade or two, transformed it to one of the global leading observatories – astronomical research observatories – in the world. We measured the first distance to a star, we did the first photographic sky survey here and then now in recent decades, we’ve transformed again into this sort of South African Observatory with SALT being the pinnacle of that – with SALT being unveiled in 2005. And since then it’s really a world class telescope – one of the largest in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. I think that looking at that journey from those beginnings to where we are now, and then imagining where we can go in the next few decades. It’s pretty amazing to me. I think it’s incredibly exciting. And as you say, it’s a wonderful opportunity to do that re-imagining and try and look at where the observatory is going to go.

Vanessa McBride: [00:31:25] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s very exciting that, we’ve had this institution in South Africa, for all this time, doing cutting edge science and through some pretty tumultuous times. It’s I mean it’s been consolidated as the South African Observatory. It’s sort of seen through Apartheid times and now we’re really trying to work hard to undo this legacy of Apartheid that we’ve been left with. And it’s quite interesting to see how the observatory and its people are moving through these new times, because of course there’s a lot of work to be done we are still, very consumed with unlearning some of the prejudice that all of us have picked up through these times. And really building an observatory that is inclusive and welcoming to most of South Africa’s population.

 Jacinta: [00:32:21] Okay. So there’s a bit of work still to do, or a lot of work still to do, which, I’m really glad to hear that there’s people like you and your colleagues and others pushing for this. In your role as Head of Research, what sort of vision do you have for the near to medium future?

Vanessa McBride: [00:32:26] So thanks Jacinta. I think it’s fun to work on these vision questions because you know, part of the job here is really to bring together this amazing group of researchers and to inspire them with a vision that we can all get behind and move forward. If you think about the last couple of decades we’ve seen, as Dan mentioned, the Southern African Large Telescope go from an idea to an actual living telescope that is working and producing results.

We’ve also seen – in South Africa and this landscape- the MeerKAT radio telescope, which also, just was an idea. And we then won the bid for the site and we now have an incredible telescope that we’re using to produce fantastic results. So what is the next big thing on the horizon? And I think that’s where we are at the moment – we’re thinking, where do we go from here? What are the instruments, what are the techniques that we are going to use to push the big questions in astronomy going forward?

And are those big questions about new and interesting discoveries that we are going to find through the big surveys of the sky that are coming online? All these questions we want to answer about how galaxies evolve and how they form and how they give rise to the stars and planets that we know. The things that we’re battling with, not only me, but it’s the whole of the observatory at the moment, is sort of working together, putting their heads together to think about,  what is the area in which we want to lead and what will be the big thing that we do in the coming decades.

Dan: [00:34:18] Yeah for me. I mean, you say, we’re putting our heads together; where can we go from here? I feel like it’s and maybe it’s just me, but I feel like it’s so much more exciting than that. It’s like, where can’t we go from here? We have SALT. We have MeerKAT, the SKA is coming – there’s limitless opportunity in South Africa for astronomy.  We have government support, we have the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act. We really are in a uniquely positive position in the world when it comes to growing astronomy. I think that it’s, the next 20 years for us, the opportunities are endless. And I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be an astronomy.

Vanessa McBride: [00:35:00] I agree, Dan. I think we really do. We have a lot that we can choose from here. And I think part of the value that we have here in South Africa, is also that we recognize, by hosting the OAD and by the work that the observatory does in the collateral benefits around SALT in the schools’ program, we realized that, whilst we do niche research about these kinds of topics, we also realize that a lot of the techniques, the methods, and in fact, the inspiration of astronomy really has to be available to a larger part of the population. We have to use this to inspire students, to study science. You know, we have to use these techniques to think of ways of lifting people out of poverty, because at the end of the day, we are in a country where we are facing these challenges of poverty, and unemployment.

Dan: [00:35:55] I mean I think you’re right. How can we use this advantage to further the socio-economic development of our country? It’s clear we are at a huge advantage in terms of astronomy right now and it’s an incredibly powerful position to be in and we need to make sure that we optimize that so that our citizens – the South Africans and Africans – gain the maximum benefit from it. Because at the end of the day, it’s our astronomy, which we are doing here in Africa and we need a full buy-in and full inclusivity of our citizens, in that endeavour.

Vanessa McBride: [00:36:34] I agree. And I think one of the ways I like to say that it’s – as astronomers – we sometimes have our heads in the stars, but we really do need to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Jacinta: [00:36:45] Absolutely.   And it’s a privilege to study astronomy and it’s so fascinating and exciting. I think we do owe it to society of course to share this passion and the insights, and with all of the other benefits that we’ll bring and especially if it can help in the areas of development. Just before we end, Vanessa, you mentioned that you also work at UCT – the University of Cape Town – and you do your own research and you have your own students. So can you mention a little bit about that and what you work on?

Vanessa McBride: [00:37:18] I do supervise some students. Actually, I have one master’s student who’s just writing up now. I have no PhD students – one of them has just submitted and received her PhD this year.   But, my field of interest is these binary stars that are transferring mass from a really massive star- much bigger than the sun – onto what we call a compact object or a neutron star and that’s the remnants of a star; after it has exhausted its fuel. Just the core remains as a very dense object called a neutron star.  I study these kinds of objects in our neighbouring galaxies – you may have seen them in the sky; the large and small Magellanic clouds – and they’re interesting objects because they trace star formation and you can see these things out to pretty large distances. Some of the stuff I’ve been working on recently is really trying to trace how – being in a binary, like this, these two stars where they’re transferring mass from one to the other – actually changes the evolutionary pathway of these stars.

So it means that they go through different phases than they would have if they were just isolated and sort of burning fuel on their own. So my work involves mostly observations in the optical, some observations in X-ray and more recently we’ve done some observations in the radio to try and connect the dots of these objects at different phases in their lives to really see how they evolve as a group.

Jacinta: [00:38:52] So have you been using SALT or MeerKAT for this work?

Vanessa McBride: [00:38:55] Yes, we have. We’ve had some MeerKAT observations last year, which we’re still analysing. And we also use SALT on a regular basis. It allows us to measure how far away these objects all from each other, how big their orbits are, and actually helps us to try and understand some of the process of this transferring of mass from one component, one of the stars onto the other.

Jacinta: [00:39:20] That’s so cool.  SALT and MeerKAT are just amazing and all of the work from the observatory also SARAO – the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. I’ve been quite silent during this discussion because all of the excitement of South African astronomy is making me question my future and I just never really want to leave. This is just really the best place to be an astronomer right now. So yeah, exciting times.

Vanessa McBride: [00:39:44] Yeah, exciting times and lots to come.

Dan: [00:39:46] Speaking of lots to come, there was one other role, Vanessa, which you have not mentioned, which I will mention. That is, you are leading the organization of the IAU general assembly in 2024, which will be held here in Cape Town. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that?

Vanessa McBride: [00:40:03] Yeah, that’s a super exciting event on our calendar, right. Even though it’s four years away.  So the International Astronomical Union has been around for about a hundred years and they have a general assembly – so a big meeting every three years – one of my colleagues describes it as the World Cup of astronomy.

This meeting has been to many places on the globe but it has never yet been held on the continent of Africa. So we were thrilled to win the bid to host this meeting in 2024. The meeting will be held in Cape Town, but it really is an African meeting because it’s the first time it will be held in Africa.

Whilst it’s exciting to have the meeting here in Cape Town, it’s also a fantastic opportunity that we can use to work towards some of the collaborations and how we want the astronomy community across Africa to evolve as we work towards this meeting in 2024. So you may have heard recently, that the African Astronomical Society has been re-established with a new vigour and they are really doing some incredible work in pulling the community of astronomers together, on the African continent. For now, it’s a small community, but it’s really been growing very rapidly. We’re very excited to see Africa represented in the global astronomy endeavour in this way.

Dan: [00:41:35] It’s very exciting, I mean, four years away as if somebody who’s just been organizing all this stuff for next week, four years is very, very close.

Jacinta: [00:41:48] Well, we may as well end it here and let you both get on with your organization of your multiple roles.  Good luck for the 200th anniversary celebrations and we look forward to talking to you again soon, Vanessa.

Vanessa McBride: [00:42:01] Lovely chatting to you, Jacinta and Dan.

Dan: [00:42:04] And you, Vanessa. Thanks for joining us.

Jacinta: [00:42:04] Bye. 

Jacinta: [00:42:06] Dan, I was having a bit of, as I said, a bit of an existential crisis while I was listening to you and Vanessa speak during that interview, which of course we did on Zoom, which was the reason for the slightly poor audio quality. But, you’re right. It’s just so exciting here in South Africa. My contract’s only for another year and I have to decide, you know, where in the world I want to go after that, but astronomy here is so good.

Dan: [00:42:41] Yeah. I mean, it really is. I think that we are in a golden era here in South Africa for astronomy. And I think that there’s going to be some major discoveries coming out of this country, which is the goal of astronomy research at the end of the day. But I’m very excited for the all South Africans.

Jacinta: [00:43:00] Slight sidestep. Speaking of recent, amazing astronomical discoveries. Life on Venus?

Dan: [00:43:06] Well, no, you know, some new molecules on Venus, which we don’t have a non-biological explanation for.

Jacinta: [00:43:12] I mean, I’m not saying it’s aliens, but… no, I thought that was really cool. I watched that press release and there’s been some absorption patterns in the light coming from Venus. And that could either be some chemical process that we’ve never observed on the earth or being able to reproduce on the earth, or it could be from some sort of bacteria, microbial life in the atmosphere of Venus, which we haven’t, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but it’s a tantalizing signal.

Dan: [00:43:48] Yeah, and I think it’s good to look the other way for a change. Everyone always looks at Mars. I think the advantage of Mars is, despite it being hostile and whatever, it’s not quite as hostile as Venus.

Jacinta: [00:43:59] Yeah. It doesn’t have sulfuric acid rain, for example.

Dan: [00:44:06] We have the feeling we could make Mars livable, but Venus is like the end point of our climate change disaster.

Jacinta: [00:44:15] Well it’s the runaway greenhouse effect, so let’s avoid that. Anyway, I think that’s pretty much it for today. Dan, did you want to give us any final plugs?

Dan: [00:44:24] Yeah, just a reminder, if you are interested in getting involved in the 200 year celebrations or watching the unveiling or anything, check out our website. Otherwise follow the observatory on social media and we’ll obviously share the links on The Cosmic Savannah social media too.

Jacinta: [00:44:39] Alrighty. So that’s the end of season three episode, one.

Dan: [00:44:43] Episode 27…

Jacinta: [00:44:46] of The Cosmic Savannah. Thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode.

Dan: [00:44:52] You can visit our website thecosmicsavannah.com. We will have the transcript links and other stuff related to today’s episode. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Jacinta: [00:45:06] Special thanks today to associate Professor Vanessa McBride for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:45:11] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh for social media and transcription assistance.

Jacinta: [00:45:14] Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyczek how for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Dan: [00:45:22] We greatfully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town – Astronomy Department – to help keep the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:45:31] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Dan: [00:45:40] And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

[End music]

Dan: Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya’ to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama.

Episode 17: Space Telescopes!

with Dr Steve Crawford and Professor Jayanne English

In Episode 17 of The Cosmic Savannah, we discuss space telescopes! We talk about the amazing Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Jacinta gleefully visiting the James Webb Space Telescope.

We sit down with Dr Steve Crawford from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Maryland, USA, and formerly SALT. Steve explains how his team deliver data from space telescopes to scientists on Earth.

Professor Jayanne English from the University of Manitoba, Canada, then gives us insight on how she and others create the beautiful images we see from the Hubble Telescope. And how the myriad of data collected is incorporated into one beautiful image.

Prof Jayanne English signing Jacinta’s book!

This week’s guests:

Featured Image:
The CTB 1 supernova remnant resembles a ghostly bubble in this image, which combines new 1.5 gigahertz observations from the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope (orange, near center) with older observations from the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory’s Canadian Galactic Plane Survey (1.42 gigahertz, magenta and yellow; 408 megahertz, green) and infrared data (blue). The VLA data clearly reveal the straight, glowing trail from pulsar J0002+6216 and the curved rim of the remnant’s shell. CTB 1 is about half a degree across, the apparent size of a full Moon.

Credits: Composite by Jayanne English, University of Manitoba, using data from NRAO/F. Schinzel et al., DRAO/Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and NASA/IRAS

Related Links:
SALT: http://www.salt.ac.za
The Space Telescope Science Institute: http://www.stsci.edu/
University of Manitoba: http://umanitoba.ca/
The Hubble Heritage Project Website: heritage.stsci.edu


(By Alicen Munn)

Jacinta: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr Jacinta Delhaize.

Dan: [00:00:08] And Dr Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a look behind the scenes look at the world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:17] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Dan: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:35] Hello, welcome to episode 17.

Dan: [00:00:35] Hello.

Jacinta:  [00:00:36] Today we are going to be talking all about some optical infrared telescopes. So we’ve talked a lot about radio astronomy because I’m a radio astronomer, but we’re gonna, we’re gonna squish those wavelengths down a bit today… talk about optical just like the SALT telescope in Sutherland in South Africa. But this time we’re going to be talking about optical near-infrared telescopes that are up in space.

Dan: [00:01:02] Yeah. So first we are joined by Dr Steve Crawford. He’s from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland in the USA, and that is the home of Hubble. The Hubble Space Telescope, and will be the home of JWST, which is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is going to be launching soon.

Jacinta: [00:01:23] Soon… It’s delayed by a few years, so we’re not exactly sure when, but it’s going to be the successor to Hubble. And at STScI, there’s the control centre for JWST and Dan, did you know I’ve actually been there?

Dan: [00:01:39] I did know that.

Jacinta: [00:01:42] Um, pretend you don’t? Yeah, so it was in 2016 I went to the US for a conference. I went to the Space Telescope Science Institute STScI, home of Hubble. And, I got to see the control centre for JWST and I even got to see JWST itself.

Dan: [00:02:04] Yeah. So for the listeners, JWST is this huge telescope which is going to go up into space. I think the current plan is 2021 for the launch, and it has 18 hexagonal mirrors, which will fold out when in space and a total diameter of just over six meters when it’s folded out. So Hubble was 2.4 meters, so it’s more than double the size of Hubble.

Jacinta: [00:02:30] Yeah, it’s a beast. So I saw it at NASA Goddard. It was in the construction chamber, and that day they had unfurled the solar panels and it was facing towards us in the viewing gallery so we could see all of the hexagonal mirrors and they were amazing. They’re gold, they’re golden in colour. I don’t know if they’re plated in gold or something golden coloured, but it was really, really incredible. It’s a spectacular telescope, so we’re all going to be nervously holding our breath when it launches.

Dan: [00:02:59] I think it’s actual gold because it’s a really good reflector in optical and infrared.

Jacinta: [00:03:04] That would make sense.

Dan: [00:03:05] So we spoke to Dr Steve Crawford who is responsible for the data delivery for JWST. He was previously here in South Africa and he was responsible for the data products for SALT, the SALT telescope.

Now he has moved to the Space Telescope Science Institute to work on how we get from JWST – this telescope, which will be in space. The images it takes, the data it takes and how we get that to the scientists so the scientists can do as little as possible or they can get their products ready for science. So that’s a large project which happens within the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Jacinta: [00:03:47] Yeah, and then we’re going to speak to Professor Jayanne English from the University of Manitoba in Canada. And she’s going to tell us about once we’ve got the data, once we’ve done the science, how we then get that to you, to the public and how we can visualize the data and the images so that you get to see it. 

Because there’s no eyepiece to Hubble or JWST. You can’t look through it, and even if you did, you wouldn’t see these beautiful pictures that we see in beautiful books and online. There’s a lot of thought that goes into designing those images. We’ll hear about that from Jayanne.

Dan: [00:04:29] Great, so let’s hear what Steve had to say.

Today, we’re joined by Dr Steve Crawford, who is joining us all the way from the USA, Maryland and the Space Telescope Institute. Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah, Steve.

Steve: [00:04:49] Thanks Daniel, it’s nice to be here.

Dan: [00:04:52] Um, you’re not just joining us all the way from the USA. You have a history with SAAO and South Africa having worked here for many years. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your time here and what you did?

Steve: [00:05:04] Sure. I actually moved here in 2006 to actually start with the SALT commissioning. To help with that and to start using SALT when it was having its first flight.

A little after a year of being here I took up a position as a SALT science data manager. In that position, I helped to oversee the data as it came off the telescope and was then distributed to the partners. And I helped develop the software which was maintaining all of that architecture, but also for calibrating the data. So making the data ready for being used by the scientist.

During that time I also did my own research into a wide range of different things of basically all the different things that we could look at SALT with and was very much involved with the commissioning and getting the telescope off the ground and being used by the community.

Dan: [00:06:03] Yeah, we’ve spoken once before. We spoke with Moses Mogotsi in the first episode about SALT and how it is managed, that it’s a queue schedule telescope. Partners put in proposals for observations and then the SALT astronomers go off and observe them and then deliver their data to the partners.

So when you talk about this data management role that you were involved in, is there some sort of system that’s in place, an automated system, or is there something which is fairly manual still?

Steve: [00:06:40] Very early on we set up an automatic system that would actually, once data came down from the telescope so the observations would happen up in Sutherland and the data would be transferred down to Cape Town. That was set up as an automatic transfer. And then each morning following the observations, there’d be actually the SALT pipeline, which would run the data through an automatic process where it would clean up the data a little bit and organize it. It would then remove detector effects and instrumental effects which were seen in the data and then it would actually make the data available to the principal investigators; the astronomers who were doing the observations around the world.

And so, basically right after you’re having your first cup of coffee in the morning, you’d also be getting your SALT data from the night before, so you could start looking at the science right away.

Dan: [00:07:34] So it’s nicely, neatly packaged, cleaned and produced for you. In terms of detector and instrument defects, you mentioned what do those look like and how do we detect them? How do they come about firstly, and then how are you detecting them and removing them?

Steve: [00:07:49] Yeah, the instruments on SALT, mainly the detectors were charged coupled devices. And with these, they basically turn photons of light into electrons. In that process, there’s different effects that have to be corrected for, like the bias level of the detector, the response of the detector – not all of the pixels have the same response – and also how those detectors are oriented. You’d also have instrumental effects, especially when using the spectrographs on SALT to the main instruments or the main instruments on SALT are our SALTICAM and imager.

And then the Robert Stobie spectrograph and the high-resolution spectrograph, which break light up into the individual components. And one of the things you’d want to do is actually match that light that you’re observing with the wavelength of that light. And so we provide tools to actually allow the wavelengths to be actually measured and so you could actually know exactly at what wavelength and how bright your source was shining.

Dan: [00:08:57] I mean, it’s pretty complicated. So you’re doing all of this stuff so that the observer doesn’t have to get into these details I assume?

Steve: [00:09:05] That’s correct. This has to be done almost to every data set no matter what type of science someone is interested in doing.

And so by having a common pipeline, it means that when the astronomer gets the data, they can actually start at the point of doing the science that they’re interested in rather than having to do this process of cleaning up the data.

Dan: [00:09:26] And so now you’ve moved recently to the Space Telescope Science Institute and what you’re doing there is something quite similar?

Steve: [00:09:35] Right. So there, just last year I moved there to take up a position as the manager of the group, which is writing the calibration pipelines for the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. And in the future, WFIRST.

Dan: [00:09:50] So for our listeners, Hubble has obviously been up for quite some time and still the software is getting worked on.

Steve: [00:09:58] So, yeah, the Hubble Space Telescope I believe will have its 30th anniversary this year, so it’s been up there doing science for quite some time, but there’s always improvements people are finding in how to calibrate the data. Having a much larger team and much more people looking at and working on these problems, you actually can do it to calibrate the data to much higher quality as well. And having a space-based very stable instrument also makes it possible to do much higher calibrations on it as well.

And so you can always figure out a better way to actually calibrate the data. And so we’re always constantly adding in new and improved ways to do it. Even after 30 years of operations, although the current instruments haven’t been up there the whole time – the Hubble Space Telescope did have several servicing missions – these instruments still have been in operations some of them for over 10 years now. You know, always figuring out a better way to do it so it’s a never-ending process of always actually trying to strive to get better and better.

Dan: [00:11:00] And then now I’m with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the next big Space Telescope, which is still under construction. I think it’s, it’s due for launch when?

Steve: [00:11:11] So the James Webb Space Telescope is currently planned for launch in 2021.

Dan: [00:11:15] And can you just give our listeners a brief overview of what it’s gonna look like and how it’s going to improve?

Steve: [00:11:22] It really will be a giant step forward in terms of the next major flagship astronomical mission. It’ll be a six and a half meter telescope, and it’s actually similar to SALT in that it’ll have the primary mirror is actually segmented. So just as a SALT primary mirror has 91 segments around it, the James Webb Space Telescope will actually be a set of a smaller number of primary mirrors, which are around it, which will actually form a six and a half meter diameter.

So the Hubble Space Telescope is only two and a half meters across. The other aspect is it will be optimized for infrared observations, and so it will actually be looking at longer wavelengths than optical light. And so the telescope is actually designed to be cool to very, very low temperatures, so it can be very, very sensitive at these long wavelengths.

Well, one of the very early science drivers for JWST is actually observing the first galaxies. And because the light from these objects have been shifted redward due to the expansion of the Universe, their light is appearing mainly in the infrared. And so the hope is actually looking at this, being able to very sensitively observe infrared observations, we’ll be able to actually capture what galaxies were like very, very early on in the Universe.

Dan: [00:12:41] And a JWST is obviously another Space Telescope, but it’s unlike Hubble as it is not going to be sitting in a low earth orbit, which means we’re not going to be able to service it or make any changes once it’s up there.

Steve: [00:12:54] Correct. This is one of the reasons that it is actually very important to get it right the first time. And the telescope will actually be launched out to what’s called L2, which is a Lagrange point which will be out beyond the Earth and out beyond orbit of the Earth where we’ll actually have a stable position to be able to make its observations and be away from the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere or Earth’s magnetosphere. And so it’ll be a little bit further out where also it’ll be able to help make these observations.

Dan: [00:13:33] From a software point of view, though, I assume there’s going to be some sort of upgrade policy. You’re going to be able to do software upgrades remotely.

Steve: [00:13:42] Yes. You’ll still need to actually be able to update commands and send information to the telescope.

We, of course, need to download the data from the telescope so one of the things that they’ll have to do is actually align the mirrors. So just like SALT needs to actually do alignment of the mirrors before it observes, one of the big first challenges for JWST the overall primary mirror is being sent up folded and then it will actually unfold and then you’ll have to actually align these primary mirrors. So this process of mirror alignment will be one of the big first challenges for JWST after launch.

Dan: [00:14:25] Because obviously we need that mirror alignment to be of like nanometer precision or something?

Steve: [00:14:30] Yeah. Incredibly high precision to actually be able to return exquisite images.

Dan: [00:14:37] And we’re going to strap it to a rocket, launch it in space, and let it fold out out there on its own.

Steve: [00:14:43] Correct. Yes. The other thing is the sun shield. There’s a sun shield that will also unfurl that will help keep the overall telescope cold. And so that’s another thing that starts to happen shortly after launch with the process of having the telescope open up and be ready for doing the observations.

Dan: [00:15:10] That is going to be a stressful lunch.

Steve: [00:15:12] It is. I mean, I think there’s no launch which isn’t stressful, and it will also be a high-stress period afterwards. But that’s why people are spending a lot of time and a lot of effort to make sure it goes right. And so it’s something that you do actually want to take your time. There is actually a lot of really great people who are trying to actually make sure that this is hopefully the biggest success as it can be.

Dan: [00:15:42] And then back to the data which we started talking about your involvement with SALT. So SALT is delivering package data to the partners. What is the policy with Hubble and then JWST in terms of data packages? Are you guys doing a similar sort of a reduction first and then delivering it to whoever’s doing the observation?

Steve: [00:16:05] Yeah. Much of the reductions done by the Space Telescope Science Institute was an inspiration for what we do here at SALT. We actually based some of our early software after software that they initially developed. And also this process of and this policy of actually delivering calibrated products.

Space Telescope was really one of the first places to actually do this and they have been delivering high quality calibrated products for their instruments for a very long time. But it is actually very similar to the same process that we go through here at SALT where data is delivered to the headquarters.

In this case, it’s transmitted down from the telescope to the ground stations and then sent on to the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. And there the pipelines will actually process the data. They’ll make both uncalibrated data available to the community and as well as calibrated data products as well, including combining together multiple different images to make even deeper images, removing all of these instrumental effects and actually just like the SALT data product and the HST product, they’re available to the investigators who initially proposed the observations initially. They have a time period where they have exclusive access to that dataset, but then it becomes public and available for anyone to the world to actually do science that they’re interested in doing with it.

And that’s been one of the really big successes with the Hubble Space Telescope is making their data archive public to astronomers all over the world to actually use. And so the two things are that for example, the Hubble Space Telescope has an open skies policy so anyone in the world can apply to use it. But also all of the data is open access, so once it actually becomes available to the public, anyone in the world can also use it to do their science that they’re interested in.

Dan: [00:18:07] And JWST is going to follow the same policy?

Steve: [00:18:10] Yup, JWST will have the same policy where hopefully, really the idea of getting the ideas and the proposals, and the best ideas from around the world so that anyone can have a great idea for how to actually use a telescope and we certainly hope to see some proposals from South Africa and around Africa to use the telescope. 

And then to get those best ideas and use a telescope, you know, when you have something which is this unique of a reasonable resource you really want the best ideas and the best science to be done and then to make the data available so that, you know, people can actually think of things that you never even would have first thought to look at the data to actually go and, and take a look with it.

It also makes science more reproducible because people can actually verify for themselves the results of others. Once again, it’s a been a long time policy at Space Telescope and I think that really helps the flagship missions of the Institute really produce the best science.

Dan: [00:19:19] You mentioned at the beginning that some of your research that you did when you were back here in South Africa working for SALT. Do you still manage to maintain any research time in your current role?

Steve: [00:19:33] I still do a bit of research. Not quite as much as I used to, but I still have a couple of projects ongoing, some with collaborators still here in South Africa. Particularly looking at active galactic nuclei and trying to measure their masses. And then I have some current work going on with the Hubble Space Telescope, looking at star-forming galaxies and galaxy clusters. I’m also active in a few other projects looking at different ways we can actually improve software for astronomy. Developing software packages that actually help to enable science in astronomy.

Dan: [00:20:16] Oh, these are general astronomy packages, so not specific to a specific telescope?

Steve: [00:20:21] Yup. The one project is called Astro Pi project and that is actually something I started contributing to while here in South Africa. But it’s to develop a common library in the Python programming language for astronomy. 

And from this, we have several affiliated packages that we’ve developed so that people can take these tools and then build upon them, so it’s kind of taking this idea of building on top of the shoulders of others.

So the Astro Pi projects provide some basic tools for reading and writing data for some cosmology and statistics. And then from these, you can build slightly more general tools for data reduction or spectroscopic analysis… and then from these, you can then build the tools that you actually write your paper with.

So it can be actually a very productive relationship of making it more easy to do science.

Dan: [00:21:26] It must be incredibly beneficial to students, and, you know, you’ve got guys who are just getting into the field, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you want to redo a file or something.

Steve: [00:21:37] Right? It’s something that hopefully helps everyone out of not having to reinvent the wheel. And it’s developed completely in the open so that also anyone can actually contribute, so we’ve had contributions from around the world and contributions from here in South Africa. And it’s a great open project. It’s not at all competitive, but it’s collaborative.

By doing things in the open and contributing, you’re advancing your own sides, but at the same time, you’re also making everyone else’s life easier to actually do more science.

Dan: [00:22:14] And advancing the field. I mean, you’re moving everything forward a little bit smoother, you know. Nobody’s getting caught up on writing the same old library over and over again.

Steve: [00:22:24] Exactly. And it’s one of the things that made my transition easier from South Africa to the Space Telescope Institute because they were both using the same tools.

So most of the calibration software and the pipelines that were developed were both written in Python. So some of the things, it was actually kind of nice to… we based a lot of the early SALT stuff on things that Space Telescope had actually built along with things built by other telescopes as well.

But then when I’m showing up in at the Space Telescope, they’re actually using some of the tools that I wrote here on some of the stuff that they are doing there. And so it wasn’t just going into something new, but there was some stuff that was pretty familiar.

Dan: [00:23:11] Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I mean that is definitely one of the advantages of open source code. I’ve experienced it myself in my work. It really is as you say; it’s not a competitive environment at all. It’s incredibly collaborative and everybody’s very supportive and very reactive to when you have a complaint or something’s not working, ‘Please help me’ then everybody sort of jumps in and wants to be the person to fix it.

Steve: [00:23:37] Yeah, I think also what’s great is that really anyone can actually help contribute to it. We’ve had people of a wide range of different backgrounds contribute to the project. Not just astronomers, but software engineers and also people who are doing technical writing. It also will find its use in other places as well and not just astronomy. It has been used in other science fields, has been used by the amateur astronomy community.

I’ve been doing too much astrometry lately actually. So it’s, um…

Dan: [00:24:11] What is astrometry?

Steve: [00:24:12] Astrometry is the measure of the position of stars. And so you’re actually measuring how accurate a star’s position is.

Right before I left, I was working on a group that was working on some software to improve the astrometry measurements for Hubble Space Telescope data so hopefully, that will be released soon, but I definitely have that on the mind.

Dan: [00:24:39] I mean, it’s interesting. It’s something that actually came up once before. On one of our podcasts we were talking about asteroids and tracking near-earth asteroids and their astrometry and you know, it’s dangerously close to astronomy but very different.

Steve: [00:24:56] Yeah, it’s part of overall astronomy but it’s only one of many fields.

Dan: [00:25:03] Steve, thank you very much for joining us.

Steve: [00:25:08] Absolute pleasure.

Dan: [00:25:09] It was great to chat to you and all the best with your endeavours with Hubble and JWST and WFIRST in the future. We didn’t really talk much about WFIRST.

Steve: [00:25:18] Maybe then I’ll have to come back.

Dan: [00:25:20] Great. Yeah, all the best and thank you once again for joining us.

Steve: [00:25:24] Thanks so much.

Jacinta: [00:25:37] Actually, I didn’t realize Steve had worked on Astro Pi.

Dan: [00:25:40] Yeah, that was one of the things he started here. I remember there were a lot of hack days that he did to try and develop Astro Pi when he was still working at SALT.

Jacinta: [00:25:48] Oh, right. For those listening, Astro Pi is part of the Python coding language, and it’s specifically for astronomers and it’s so good. I wish that we’d had it fully functioning when I was doing my PhD. Oh my goodness, it would have helped so much.

Dan: [00:26:08] You and me both.

Jacinta: [00:26:09] Yeah. But now it’s kind of fully functioning and it’s only since I’ve moved to South Africa a year or more ago that I’ve learned to use it. I use it every day.

Dan: [00:26:18] Yeah, it’s a great project and now it’s getting updated regularly and it’ll be used more and more by the students to make their lives a bit easier.

Jacinta: [00:26:24] Yeah, so basically I use it to read in my data, to analyze it, to visualize it, to do my whole analysis and get an answer out at the end. Do some science.

Dan: [00:26:35] Yeah, so now we’ve got these data products out of the likes of SALT, Hubble, JWST, and I guess we need to find out next how the astronomers make these beautiful images that we see. And to speak to us about that is Professor Jayanne English.

Jacinta: [00:26:52] Yeah. So we spoke to Jayanne recently and she was telling us all about… So she was visiting, uh, South Africa to work with IDIA, I.D.I.A. which is…

Dan: [00:27:04] the Inter-university Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:27:09] What is IDIA?

Dan: [00:27:10] So basically this Inter-university Institute which takes astronomical data, which these days is very, very big and hard to deal with. It puts it on a big cluster and tries to deliver it to the scientists in the cleanest easiest way.

So rather than the scientists having to download to their individual laptops, all of the data they need to analyze it, you can just log on to IDIA. And it’s through a portal and work directly on this big cluster on your data. Everything’s at your disposal. They also have the IDIA visualization lab attached to that, which helps in creating beautiful visualizations of your data, which is not just for public consumption or for fun, but actually a great way to explore your data and try and understand what’s really going on.

Jacinta: [00:27:58] Yeah, and I’m just about to work with the IDIA staff to put our data into it and examine it like that, which I’m really excited about.

Dan: [00:28:07] It’s a wonderful institute and they’re doing some really wonderful work.

Jacinta: [00:28:10] Yeah. So Jayanne was working with them on their visualization, and because she is an expert in the intersection of art and science and how to translate them to each other and how both are really essential for communicating and bringing astronomy to all of us.

So Jayanne is an artist. She has a degree in art. She also has a degree in physics and a PhD in astrophysics. So she’s very well rounded and great for this role. So she spoke to us about a supernova remnant where a massive star has gotten to the end of its life, it’s died in a big supernova explosion and what’s remaining after that is what Jayanne is looking at.

And she’s also using that and other data products to make some of the beautiful images that we’ve seen coming from Hubble and other telescopes. So let’s hear from Jayanne.

With us in the studio here in Cape Town today we have with us Professor Jayanne English from the University of Manitoba. Welcome, Jayanne.

Jayanne: [00:29:18] Thank you.

Jacinta: [00:29:19] Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself? Who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re here in Cape Town?

Jayanne: [00:29:25] Okay. I’m a Canadian and I’m a professor at the University of Manitoba in the middle of the Prairies and we have a small astronomy group there. And one of my main interests is visualization and astronomy. Here in Cape Town, the universities are interacting together and cooperating on a very interesting big data endeavour and one of the components for understanding big data is visualization, so I came to see their visualization lab and all of the experiments and visualization that they’re doing.

Dan: [00:30:00] You’re visiting the IDIA visualization, which is the Inter-university Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy. 

Jacinta: [00:30:09] Oh, well done. 

Dan: [00:30:11] I just wrote a proposal for them.

 So the IDIA Institute is set up at UCT, and as you said they’re doing some visualizations of astronomical data. So what astronomical data do you work on?

Jayanne: [00:30:25] The astronomical data I work on is wide-ranging. So I do like radio data because it’s a very rich data set. So you have velocity in that dataset. But I also do optical through infrared data. So when I’m making images, I will be making things for NASA as well. So I make images for my projects that I work on with colleagues, the science research projects and I also will make images, for example, if NASA contacts me and says, could you do an image? And the last one was radio data, radio continuum data. So there’s no velocity in those radio data sets but it was a very interesting one. It involved data from the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and data from the Very Large Array, and it was about a pulsar. And a NASA satellite had been used for the timing associated with the pulsar, but they wanted an image to point out what was really going on and that pulsar is escaping from its supernova remnant.

So I don’t know how far back you want to go here. So maybe we should tell people what a pulsar is. 

Dan: [00:31:46] Yeah, for sure.

Jayanne: [00:31:47] Do you want to do it?

Dan: [00:31:48] Yeah, let’s do it.

Jayanne: [00:31:49] Okay. Do you want, do you want to start?

Dan: [00:31:51] Okay, so essentially what a pulsar is, is the remnant of a collapsed star. So it’s a neutron star spinning very, very rapidly, and it sends out a pulse, a beam of radiation light every time the beam crosses the path of Earth. So we measure that as a little blip, a little burst of light.

Jayanne: [00:32:19] Yeah, and it will be giving us flips in under a second. And when it forms, when the star is dying, this massive star’s dying the core of the star implodes and the outer envelope explodes. So you get a supernova remnant. It’s become a supernova when it explodes. It becomes a supernova remnant so it’s this spherical distribution around the core of the star, which is what becomes, what is, once it’s collapsed, imploded, it’s the pulsar. 

Now, this pulsar got a kick, and so it’s not in the centre of its supernova remnant. It’s been kicked out and there’s a trail of electrons, plasma flowing behind it. So it’s got this kind of little spike coming out of the supernova remnant and at the very tip of it is the pulsar.

Dan: [00:33:17] So the supernova remnant is like this cloud of expanding gas around where the supernova exploded.

Jayanne: [00:33:23] Well instead of a cloud, like a cloud in the sky it’s more like a shell. So it is gas. It’s a gas shell and it’s expanding outwards.

Dan: [00:33:35] Right. And then how would this pulsar get a kick?

Jayanne: [00:33:39] Yes, that’s the mystery. So for some reason, that explosion can be asymmetric. So it’s not sitting in exactly empty space, but there’s the interstellar medium surrounding it so the explosion can be somewhat non-uniform, not the same in all directions. And so that’s one of the ways they think it gets a kick.

Jacinta: [00:34:05] And what does this look like? You talked a lot about your work in data visualization, which I guess is seeing things right. What does it look like?

Jayanne: [00:34:14] So you can Google it.

Just Google Cannonball Pulsar and what it looks like is a shell of glowing gas. There’s some infrared clouds that have been coloured blue. They’ve been assigned the colour blue. Uh, and then you will have this little spur coming down out of the lower left side of this shell of expanding gas. And, yes it just looks like a little spur, but this is really hard to observe.

Like this needs high resolution, which they now have much better. They’ve upgraded the Very Large Array, the VLA. So you can now observe these. So I had to take the high-resolution image from the VLA and merge it in with the lower resolution survey data from the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey. So the survey data has the full shell of the supernova remnant.

Jacinta: [00:35:10] So this image has radio?

Jayanne: [00:35:12] It’s mainly radio and infrared. No optical.

Jacinta: [00:35:16] No. Okay, so you said that the image has been coloured blue.

Jayanne: [00:35:19] For the infrared. The rest has been coloured warm colours, so kind of brassy, golden, warmer, orangy almost colours. Very three dimensional looking. The shells are very three dimensional looking. There are some pinks and greens.

Jacinta: [00:35:34] so if we were to go out at night and look through a powerful telescope ourselves up in at, at this object, would we see it in blue and rusty coloured.

Jayanne: [00:35:43] No, you wouldn’t see that in any colours at all because our eyes don’t see in the radio wavelengths. So indeed you wouldn’t see it at all.

Our eyes are not good detectors, so the telescopes are much better detectors. They see in wavelength ranges, energy ranges that our eyes can’t detect. And so they’ll see in the, um… You know, if you’re looking at X-rays, you know you can’t see your bones or your co-hosts bones. You can’t see them, but you have an X-ray detector.

So our telescopes are like that. We have a radio detector, we have an X-ray detector, we have an infrared detector. So it’s all these things that your eyes can’t see. So these images are visualizing the invisible. About 70% of our brain is geared towards vision, so vision is how we grasp and understand what’s going on.

And then we measure, right? So we will select from an image where to do our measurements. So all of our data is put into visual form that we then examine. So the data from a radio telescope, actually any telescope will be black and white, and then we assign colours to it.

Dan: [00:37:00] Well, technically it’s not even black and white, right? It’s just radio.

Jacinta: [00:37:05] It’s invisible to our eyes.

So, okay I’ve got a million questions there. Dan, do you have any questions first?

Dan: [00:37:12] I was just going to say that it’s quite interesting this, and I think it’s something a lot of people don’t realize when they have these beautiful pictures on Instagram or as their backgrounds on their computers, they download these beautiful pictures from powerful telescopes.

I think a lot of people don’t realize that those colours aren’t real. And that’s your business, right?

Jayanne: [00:37:32] They are real in the sense that we’re colour-coding science, so we’re not colour-coding what your eye would see. Your eye is very misleading, and you can think of that in terms of optical illusions so your eyes aren’t sensitive enough. They’re not collecting enough photons, little packets of light, so you’re not seeing things as I just explained, because of the energy ranges, but even in your own energy range, you’re not seeing everything you could see. Even photographic film is a better detector of the light in the optical wavelengths.

So if you want to show, say what an element is, your eye will be misleading. At faint light levels, your eye does not see colour very well and things turn a ghostly green. Now we know that oxygen if you put electricity through it, is going to glow green, okay? And we know that hydrogen is going to glow red.

Now we can have a lot of hydrogen, but your eye’s going to see it as ghostly green. So you’re going to think it’s oxygen when it’s really hydrogen. So we make our measurements and we know what’s there. And then we want to say, well, what’s there? Not what your eye would mislead you to think is there, but what is really there.

So the colours are real in the sense that they’re encoding the scientific physical information.

Dan: [00:38:54] So in the visible band, we can see from red to blue and everything in between. And red does have longer wavelengths, blues have shorter wavelengths. So if you have infrared, which is of a shorter wavelength than radio.

Jayanne: [00:39:07] Yes.

Dan: [00:39:09] Would you encode the infrared to be bluer than the radio?

Jayanne: [00:39:15] That is right. And that’s why my infrared is blue in the picture.

Dan: [00:39:18] All right. So you are maintaining that sort of intuitive view of different wavelengths, but shifting it to wavelengths we can see.

Jayanne: [00:39:28] So in that particular image, yes and no.

Jacinta: [00:39:36] The plot thickens.

Jayanne: [00:39:38] So you can, for some of them, you’re using multiple datasets from different telescopes and you’ve got at each different telescope, multiple datasets that you can select from to assign colour to.

You can do that straightforward shift as a first approximation if you like. But then what you also want to do is add spatial depth and visual interest. So you can also add in some of the data sets with assigned colours that will give you spatial depth. So warm colours come forward. Cool colours go away. This is artist speak, not science-speak, right? So those are the definitions in art. If it recedes, it’s a cool colour. So in the Cannonball Pulsar, for example, I could make that look very three dimensional by using more than one dataset from the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey. 

I’m using warmer colours than the blue so I am keeping that in an actual kind of order, but I am also able to add a warmer, say, pinkish tone and a cooler greenish tone to give this Supernova remnant a very spherical feeling. So what I like to do is encourage people to use the techniques from visual art and design in order to make engaging pictures.

So the whole point of making these pictures are to engage the public so that they actually know they’re there and see them. And then the public we hope will be encouraged to go and find out more information about those art objects. So we can’t tell everything about the object in our image. It would just not be clear at all if we included everything from x-ray through to radio in that image.

You would not even notice the pulsar probably so it’s kind of an illustration in a way. Well, an illustration in the sense that even a photograph here, if I took a picture out here at SAAO, I’m taking a picture of Jacaranda in front of a beautiful white dome. I have selected that perspective, and I’m not showing you everything about SAAO, and I’m showing you a very romantic picture in that photograph, right?

So even when I make an astronomy image, there’s no way that I can’t have a perspective or context. So I am selecting things to carefully present a scientific perspective.

Jacinta: [00:42:15] And I think your interpretation, well, it’s definitely hit the mark because it was one of the reasons why I became an astronomer as I told you yesterday. I have a book called Magnificent Universe, which a friend gave me when I was 14 and it’s full of beautiful pictures from the Hubble telescope and other telescopes with gorgeous planetary nebula, supernova remnants like you were talking about before, galaxies and planets and everything. 

And the majesty of the pictures just inspired me so much that I wanted to learn more about the science and the physics behind these objects. And then I became an astronomer and you kindly signed my book for me yesterday. One of those pictures was a, was a planetary nebular I guess it is, yes.

Jayanne: [00:43:06] It’s the ring nebula. Ring.

Jacinta: [00:43:10] Ring Nebula, right? That you and your, your Hubble Heritage Team created. Now, I as a young person always thought that these were what you would actually see with your eye if you could see things as faint as that, that it was in true colour, but now you, you’re explaining that it’s not and why.

And so what would you say to someone who says that the picture is therefore not true?

Jayanne: [00:43:35] Your eye is so misleading, your eye does not see the truth.

Jacinta: [00:43:39] And so when the question is, what is truth?

Jayanne: [00:43:41] That’s right. So for the pictures that I’m actually talking about are ones that are made by professional astronomers.

So for us, our truth is the scientific truth, not the religious truth, not the philosophical truth, but what we have actually discovered we’re trying to put forward. Okay, I measured this gas here and it’s very hot, right? Which is very confusing when you do it for the public because hot for a scientist is blue and not red.

Whereas the public’s going to read it as red. So what we’re trying to do is teach them, we have some pedagogy embedded here, teach them that blue is hot, and we’re going to say this is a hot gas. And then how do you make that blue look hot?

There are a couple of different visual ways that you can borrow from art to do that. Make it glow, for example. Make it a warmer blue so that it’s more towards a greeny-blue to make it look more hot. And so you want to get the message across that I have discovered hot gas closer to the dying star in the centre of that planetary Nebula and cooler gas further out I make that a dull red further out.

But as you saw yesterday, there are many different solutions for making these images and getting that scientific truth across. You can assign colours in different ways that will do that. So there’s many very valid images to do that. And that’s another issue for the public is that they expect them because they expect it to be… if you could go up to the Hubble Space Telescope and look through an eyepiece they expect it to look like that. They’re surprised when using the same dataset they have a different appearance.

Dan: [00:45:33] They’re certainly surprised when they go stargazing to see such beautiful things through telescopes.

Jayanne: [00:45:39] But I think at the same time, when you just go up to a telescope and you see it in that ghostly green, you still have like this really dark sky behind the object. You still get a sense of 3D space and kind of blowing object in front of you, and I think people still get excited about that, right?

Jacinta: [00:46:02] What background do you have that led you to this marriage of science and art and what you call the cosmos and canvas?

Jayanne: [00:46:10] My first completed degree was in fine arts, visual arts. So I went to the Ontario College of Art and Design University. That’s what it’s called now, it was the Ontario College of Art, but in high school, I did all of the science programs. I wanted to be an astronomer since I was young. So I did three maths and physics and chemistry. I managed to avoid biology and at the same time, I had a scholarship for art on the weekends. I would go down and learn how to life draw and so on. So my interest was science, but my heritage is art. My father was a landscape painter, my aunt painted people, and so I did a lot of art since I was very young.

Jacinta: [00:47:03] In your opinion, what’s the importance of what you do of making these images, of engaging the public with the beauty of astronomy?

Jayanne: [00:47:11] Well, there’s a few things. A lot of people talk about it as giving back to the taxpayer. They can’t read a professional paper, right? So you give that to them by producing these images and they’re very curious, and it’s great to engage with people. 

But on a broader philosophical level, it’s almost like we’re creating everybody’s belief system. So most people don’t believe in a flat earth, and where does that come from? Contemporarily that comes from scientists, right?

People have an understanding that there are black holes that they exist. And where does that come from? It comes from scientists. And so we’re creating a belief system in a way. So it’s the dissemination of knowledge, but that knowledge then leads to what people actually believe about the Universe.

Dan: [00:48:07] How many people are doing this kind of work?

Jayanne: [00:48:09] There are hardly any jobs for this if that’s what you’re asking. So in terms of jobs, there’s always been about a handful, but people are absorbing it into their own practice. For myself, I’ll be working on a project, I’ll be part of a big consortium. We’ve got a nice press release coming out, I hope in November.

Our team has discovered that the magnetic fields and galaxies are kind of coming in and out of the galaxies, kind of interweaving out into space, up away from the plane, from the disc of the galaxy, but also towards and away from us. And so this is called a magnetic field reversal and this hasn’t been seen before.

Now you try and make magnetic field. That’s a real challenge. But we have this image, so it’s an image that’s created as a team. All of these are done as a team, and so instead of having a job where you go and you make these images. Instead, if you’re embedded in a group, you can be working with the group to produce images and then present them to press officers who will then disseminate them.

So the Cannonball Pulsar was one that was requested and they did not send it out to an illustrator at NASA. They said ‘Who can make this image that’s like in this paper’? And they said, ‘Oh, well, you know Jayanne. She used to work for you.’ And they say, ‘Okay, can you make the image?’ So I’m a Prof. at a university, and I just volunteered to make the image for NASA.

Dan: [00:49:45] Yeah, I was going to say, it’s quite interesting that NASA doesn’t do this in house. I would have expected them to, and it’s pretty cool that you’re on speed-dial. You’re not on Instagram with all your pretty pictures?

Jayanne: [00:49:56] Um, so when I send it to a press officer and they agree to do a press release, they put it on Instagram, they put it on Facebook, they put it everywhere.

The Cannonball Pulsar, I think had a million and a half hits last time that I asked. The place to go to is ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ for astronomy pictures. If you’re really into them there’s a new picture every day. And that’s as encouraging as the book that was given to you when you were 14.

Sometimes my pictures make it there, sometimes they don’t. But at my website, there’ll be a link to a Google page with my pictures.

Dan: [00:50:40] I was going to say the Astronomy Picture of the Day is quite an accolade if you can get one on there. How many do you have?

Jayanne: [00:50:46] Oh. Well, when I was on the Hubble Heritage Team for that, I was there for two years coordinating, every single one was on astronomy picture of the day.

Dan: [00:51:01] You must be the record holder,

Jayanne: [00:51:04] But that’s for the team, and the team won awards and stuff too. And then I would say some half of mine are on APOD. They have our time with radio astronomy images.

I guess this is the other thing is we’ve talked about the supernova remnant, and that’s a spherical object, and the public really understands that, but sometimes I really get tired of doing the understandable, comprehensible objects. I want to do the mysterious things, like all the gas in the middle of the Milky Way’s plain. You know, if you think of the Milky Way as an edge on a disc. You can think of it as, uh, a hamburger bun with a slice in the middle. And we, the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey imaged the slice through the middle, all the gas there. It’s very abstract and gorgeous, but you know, that’s not very comprehensible. So they don’t put it up on APOD.

Jacinta: [00:52:09] What is the Hubble Heritage Team?

Jayanne: [00:52:11] Oh, yes. So the Hubble Heritage Team was started around 1998 and it first took the data from the Hubble archive and produced images from the archival data, and sometimes we would ask for extra data from the director’s discretionary time.

One of the things we did was we interacted with the scientists who collected that data and educated them about image-making. Tried to get them onside. Scientists like contour plots and things like that and have strong opinions about how an image should present the science information and we’d have to point out to them ‘No, you don’t want it dead centre in the middle of the image because then it’ll look like it’s falling down and it’s static and so people don’t look at it for a long time.’ And so we had to educate them a lot about visuals.

Jacinta: [00:53:12] Quite a few years ago, Hubble was due to be decommissioned, but due to pressure from the public, it continued to be funded and to be run and maintained. How much of that would you attribute to some of these beautiful images that you and your team have made?

Jayanne: [00:53:30] I think quite a lot. I mean, at a certain point in time NASA had education and public outreach offices that were well-staffed. That outreach included a lot of things from video like they would make things that would go on TV. All the images are free. So if you’re an author and you’re making a book like you received, you wouldn’t have to pay for those images at all. That’s why so many Hubble images are out there. So having all these visuals being produced in a little video already that a news television station could just like grab and put up on their news show and having these pictures ready, being like shovelled out to any author who wants to use them, any news media outlet that wants to use them meant that they didn’t have to do any work to get information on science.

So these were ubiquitous and as people put it, we’re being told that this is the best telescope that was ever built. It’s the best telescope ever, and now you’re saying you’re not going to refurbish it and maintain it and keep it in orbit? Like, were you lying to us about it being this special, precious scientific instrument?

So those images, I think, played a great role.

Jacinta: [00:54:56] I mean, this is amazing and we could talk to you forever. I have so many more questions, but is there anything else you’d like? Any other final messages you’d like to share with the listeners?

Jayanne: [00:55:04] I wouldn’t be discouraged that there aren’t any specific jobs or many specific jobs in making the images, but go ahead astronomers and make the images anyway. For the astronomy students who are interested in this, get that under your belt. You can use it for your papers as well. It’s very powerful in terms of describing your research in real academic papers.

But for the public, what I would say is make some images too. Join your amateur or citizen science, local astronomy society. They have amazing telescopes and filters now about the quality we had as professional astronomers in the 1980s so it’s no longer really called amateur astronomy. It’s called citizen science because you can actually make measurements now. So join any group that’s making measurements and you can do astrophotography. It’s a really big thing, and you’ll get the hang of the science and you can present it how you like to your peers. And if you were dissatisfied and thinking that it was a false colour, then you can colour it the way you want to just to present it to people and that would be fun. And if you’re not into images, you can also do things like hunt for exoplanets.

Jacinta: [00:56:31] Yeah. There are heaps of ways to get involved. Where can people find you? Are you online anyway?

Jayanne: [00:56:36] Yeah, you just Google Jayanne English. Jayanne is J. A. Y. A. N. N. E. and I will pop to the top and I will apologize now for my old-school website.

Jacinta: [00:56:49] Well, thank you very much for speaking with us today. It’s been a pleasure.

Dan: [00:56:53] Yes, thank you.

Jayanne: [00:56:54] You’re welcome.

Dan: [00:57:05] Right. So it was wonderful to hear from Jayanne and I think to hear about how we actually get to these beautiful images. We see it’s a long process, right? So there’s all of the data processing that has to happen. After that, it gets delivered to scientists, then it gets delivered to people like Jayanne who combine art and science to try and represent this data in a way that are the human eye can actually understand it a little bit better. 

And I think it was really nice to hear that it’s not just about painting it pretty colours. It’s actually encoding the information. So velocity for example, which is just the speed the gas is moving, uh, you can encode that information and in some ways so that your art can actually see how this thing is moving. It’s really quite fascinating.

Jacinta: [00:57:53] Yeah. And I liked what she said about examining what is real and what is the truth and is seeing believing? I mean, as she said, our eyes aren’t actually that good detectors, so just because we see it in one way, does that necessarily mean that that is the truth? It’s quite a philosophical question and it’s really interesting how she’s explored that question and how she’s brought that to us through astronomy. 

Dan: [00:58:16] And as a scientist, you kind of learn not to trust your eye and you rely on things like maths and statistics and use that as a more fundamental truth not be tricked by how something looks.

Jacinta: [00:58:29] And I guess in this way, she’s using art to help with the fundamental truth. So yeah, I thought that was a very interesting approach.

Dan: [00:58:37] And that’s it for today.

Jacinta: [00:58:38] Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:58:43] As always, you can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com we will have links related to today’s episode and pretty pictures. And you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at Cosmic Savannah. That’s Savannah spelled S. A. V. A. N. N. A. H.

Jacinta: [00:59:01] Special thanks today to Dr Steve Crawford and Professor Jayanne English for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:59:06] Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink for the astrophotography, Lana Ceraj for the graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi for social media support.

Jacinta: [00:59:15] We gratefully acknowledged support from the South African national research foundation and the South African astronomical observatory to help keep the podcast running.

Dan: [00:59:23] You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you’d like to help us out, please recommend us to a friend and write a review.

Jacinta: [00:59:31] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.