Many thanks Brian for taking the time to do this interview.
As "one of our own" on the IFAS forum, when did you first become interested in astronomy?
No worries, Michael, glad to. I became interested in astronomy at the age of five, and I can remember very well the book that kicked it off - the 1975 Guinness Book of Records! I was a voracious reader at that age, and browsing through the Guinness book, I came across the Space and Astronomy section, and I was hooked. My family indulged my interest - books, binoculars, telescopes - and I had learned off the constellations by the time of Halley's return in 1985/86. I was a very active amateur during my teenage years - variable star observing, comets, meteor observing and watching out for aurorae, mostly. Once I went off to college in Maynooth in the early 1990's, my observing time dwindled somewhat!
In the last couple of years we've seen you make the transition from amateur astronomer to professional. Where did you formally study astronomy and how did you become involved with ESA on the Herschel mission?
As I mentioned, I initially went to NUI Maynooth (or St. Patrick's College, Maynooth as it was back in those days), mostly due to the reputation of the Physics Dept there in terms of space science - I always wanted to be an astronomer, and going to Maynooth seemed the best option to follow that career path. At this point, there weren't any dedicated astronomy/astrophysics courses in Ireland, but Maynooth's physics course had a good rep, so off I went. Once I finished my B.Sc., I ended up at UCD in the Space Science group as a Ph.D. student under Prof. Brian McBreen. Brian was (and still is) a major influence on my career path - he put me to work on data from ESA's Infrared Space Observatory, looking at particular types of intensely star forming galaxies, thus starting me off down my carrer path and igniting my main area of research interests. Post-UCD, I spent some time at Dunsink before leaving for George Mason University in northern Virginia in the US, spending over 4 years there working mostly on Spitzer IR observations of star forming galaxies and AGN.
I got involved with Herschel in a pretty standard way - I got offered a job! During my time at GMU (and indeed earlier, as it turned out), I'd made good contacts with people involved on Herschel - it helped me secure a job at Imperial College as a member of the SPIRE Instrument Control Centre (ICC). My current duties are split between software development, being chair of the SPIRE document editorial board (we write the observing and instrument manuals) and mission planning (we put together the sets of observations for SPIRE for each observing campaign).
What are the mission goals of the Herschel project, how long is it budgeted to run for and what exactly is your role in the mission?
The Herschel Space Observatory (formerly known as FIRST) is the fourth cornerstone mission in the European Space Agency (ESA) science programme. It will perform imaging photometry and spectroscopy in the far infrared and submillimetre part of the spectrum, covering approximately the 55-672 µm range, using a 3.5m mirror - the largest ever launched. Herschel carries three scientific instruments:
* HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared), a high resolution spectrometer;
* PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer);
* SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver), a camera/spectrometer.
These instruments were developed by nearly 40 institutes, mainly European but with American and Canadian participation.
Herschel is the only space facility dedicated to the submillimetre and far infrared part of the spectrum. Its vantage point in space provides several decisive advantages, including a low and stable background and full access to this part of the spectrum.
Herschel has the potential of discovering the earliest epoch proto-galaxies, revealing the cosmologically evolving AGN-starburst symbiosis, and unraveling the mechanisms involved in the formation of stars and planetary system bodies. The key science objectives emphasise specifically the formation of stars and galaxies, and the interrelation between the two, but also includes the physics of the interstellar medium, astrochemistry, and solar system studies.
The mission length depends on how quickly we use up the available cryogen for cooling the telescope. The nominal mission length is 3 years, but the mission funding will remain secure beyond this until we run out of helium for cooling. We'll get a better fix on this as we proceed through the next few months of Herschel ops.
My own role in the next while will consist of the duties listed above. In addition, I'm part of of the Herschel Science Advisory Group 2, which is focussed upon studies of nearby galaxies, and in my case, on studies of nearby dwarf star forming galaxies - such objects are nearby analogues of the earliest star forming galaxies. We have a fair swathe of observing time with SPIRE and PACS, and we'll be getting our heads down to crank out papers once the observations start to arrive. We expect the first major Herschel papers out early next year.
Now that you are heavily in astronomy-related work projects, has this changed your enjoyment or perspective of amateur astronomy in any way since you first become interested in the subject?
It certainly has restricted my time/opportunities for amateur astronomy! When I do get out (which is pretty rare), it's for very much casual observing these days - I do enough of an observing program in my day job without bringing it home as well! Living in the US was fantastic - I could drive an hour west of where I lived to get crystal clear and *dark* skies, and it was fantastic to be able to scan the southern Milky Way in my Nexstar 5i in such wonderful skies. On occasion, trips to observatories such as Keck offer their own opportunities for casual observing - I pack along my trusty 10x50s so that I can out of the control room and do a little fun observing. Breaking out a scope for observing is a fantastic way to relax - sadly I don't get enough opportunities to do so these days.
In this age of super-large telescopes in remote corners of the globe, or indeed in space, in what areas can amateur astronomers still contribute to modern science?
Certainly, technological advances for professional astronomy have restricted the routes by which amateurs can contribute. However, there are areas where this is not so much of an issue - variable star observing, hunting for supernovae/novae/comets, meteor observing etc. for example - areas that professional coverage is far more sparse. One must remember that professionals usually only get a small amount of time at a telescope to study their objects - a restriction that amateurs don't face!
Planetary observing in particular still remains an area where amateurs hold the edge over professionals - indeed, the quality of images produced by amateurs is, quite frankly, stunning, and provide invaluable datasets for professionals.
Professionals have their particular niches, as do amateurs - and these days, both groups work very well together in areas of mutual interest. So yes, there's plenty of scope - if you pardon the pun - for amateurs to contribute!
Any vacancies for a few amateur astronomers? :-)
I'll keep you guys in mind ;-)
Many thanks for taking the time for this interview.
Hope this helps!