DARA UK advanced student completes first ASTRON/JIVE traineeship programme in science operations with massive arrays
Published 3 October 2018
Emmanuel Bempong-Manful (Ghana)
DARA UK Advanced Student
My experience at the first ASTRON/JIVE Traineeship programme in Science Operations with Massive Arrays has been rewarding in diverse ways, for it allowed me to be part of an amazing trimester of exposure to a complex yet amazing radio telescopes – the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the European VLBI Network (EVN). The program which included 11-weeks of full exposure to LOFAR operations, and 1-week of training in VLBI operations and science at JIVE has the primary objective of giving astronomers (post doc, PhD or graduate student level) the opportunity to acquire expertise in operating massive arrays such as LOFAR and the EVN, therefore developing skills that will be required for the operation of next generation facilities such as the SKA. We were assigned mentors within the Science Support Teams at ASTRON and JIVE, under which we learned how to master independently the complex array science operations of the operated instruments. Throughout this experience, I have really learned so much and acquired hands-on practical experience which otherwise I would not have had in my traditional PhD training.
The traineeship also featured lectures and activities with the support groups such as visit to the LOFAR telescopes, Correlator (Cobalt and EVN), Long Term Archive (LTA) and the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope. During these visits, we were given expert tours of the respective facilities to understand the operations and role of each infrastructure in the overall science capabilities of the instruments. One of the most interesting and knowledgeable session was the visit to the LOFAR LTA site at SURFsara in Amsterdam Science Park. This was to introduce us to the largest long-term storage facility of the LOFAR instrument, where about two-thirds of LOFAR’s current data is stored. It was interesting to see the Grid infrastructure, where some of the LOFAR data is processed, and the Tape Storage facility where LOFAR LTA is housed. This session helped me not only get an understanding of how astronomical data is stored but to understand the technical and operational procedures required each time astronomers request to access/download these archived data from the LTA. Before I didn’t have much of an understanding of the role of these “third party” IT infrastructures in the data storage business in astronomy, however, now I have come to appreciate the indispensable role these storage facilities play in delivering the overall science goals of current astronomical instruments, and indeed with next generation radio telescopes such as the SKA on the horizon, and Big Data Astronomy era looming, it is interesting to know that infrastructures such as SURFsara will be more relevant than ever before, and play a key role in maximising the scientific output that can be achieved by astronomers in view of the large stream of data that will be generated from next generation radio interferometry.
Although I have worked with radio astronomy data over the past few years, the traineeship offered me the first opportunity to gain practical experience on how radio astronomy observations are conducted, and more importantly, how to prepare and conduct such observations myself. I have also gained expertise on how to perform detailed post-observation data quality assessment to determine the suitability of data for the specific science case for which such observations were made. I cannot speak highly of the experiential nature of the training, and in particular, the opportunity given us (trainees) to act as telescope scientist on duty and lead sessions of the daily standard meetings of the Science Operations and Support (SOS) group – to discuss various operational matters, helped to boost my confidence in the overall science operations of the LOFAR instrument. I also found the work environment at ASTRON and JIVE conducive and the scientists and support staff also very helpful. Personally, I enjoy communicating, meeting new people and sharing ideas especially with people who share similar research interest with me, so the rare opportunity to engage in daily interactions with scientists, engineers and support staff working at ASTRON and JIVE was an incredible experience for me, and through my voluntary participation in the bi-weekly AGN group meetings of the Astronomy Group at ASTRON, I have established useful contacts with researchers working in my field of study. Through this traineeship programme, I have further consolidated my background in radio astronomy and more importantly acquired hands-on experience in the science operations of a novel astronomy facility (LOFAR), and I consider myself privileged to have been part of this journey.
Indeed the learning and experiences I gained from the traineeship is going to stick with me a lifetime. On a personal level, it was a steep learning curve yet an exciting experience and the knowledge, skills and competencies I have acquired will help not only in my present study but will also assist me in advancing my career aspirations in astronomy and astrophysics. This traineeship offers a once in a life time experience, for which I will recommend every young radio astronomer, particularly post doc, PhD or graduate student level should aspire to have at some point in their career.
The traineeship programme was sponsored by ASTRON and the Joining up Users for Maximising the Profile, the Innovation and the Necessary Globalisation of JIVE (JUMPING JIVE) which received its funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 730884.