When one of the most important new ground-based telescopes in a generation begins operation as early as next year, a cohort of astrophysics and social science fellows, backed by $6.9 million in funding from the John Templeton Foundation, will be able to collaborate on some of the first discoveries made with its images. The Vera Rubin Observatory (also known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope or LSST) will make nearly-weekly full surveys of the Southern Hemisphere’s sky, as seen from its mountaintop location on Cerro Pachón, Chile. With its 8.5-meter primary mirror reflecting starlight into the largest digital camera ever made, the telescope will capture a composite image of the entire visible sky every few nights, eventually assembling the first-ever high sensitivity and resolution, multi-color, decade-long time-lapse ‘movie’ of the southern sky. The survey will help provide new insights on dark matter and dark energy, black holes, galaxies, exoplanets, as well as potentially dangerous near-earth objects.
ACCESS AND INDEPENDENCE
The LSSTC Catalyst Fellows will begin work during a pivotal season for the decades-long project. The National Science Foundation funded the $473 million construction of the observatory, but as the telescope begins operations by the end of next year, the LSST Corporation (LSSTC), a consortium of 40 participating institutions, will take the lead in supporting the Observatory’s scientific work and data analysis. The majority of the postdoctoral fellows and junior professors who receive the fellowships will be placed in partnership with the LSSTC, allowing the fellows a seat at the table as astrophysicists, engineers and data scientists work to deliver on the telescope’s potential. This inside access will be coupled with the freedom to pursue fully independent research, allowing the fellows to pursue independent scientific goals, allowing them to pursue compelling research hypotheses as they emerge.
TAKING THE WIDE VIEW
As it comes online, the Vera Rubin Observatory will face unprecedented challenges in terms of data volume and complexity, as well as the human challenges that will arise from coordinating the many institutions and scientists involved. To offer a unique viewpoint on these challenges, the LSSTC fellows will include social scientists who will be able to make their own sociological observations of the culture and community that develop around the Observatory, as well as building interdisciplinary bridgers to instill cultural self-awareness within the LSSTC, helping to shape its scientific culture.
“The Vera Rubin Observatory has the potential to transform cosmology and astrophysics, addressing many of those fields’ deepest questions,” says Dr. Aamir Ali, the John Templeton Foundation’s program officer for mathematics and physical scientists. “By placing early-career researchers at the center of that work as it begins — and including social scientists in the mix — the LSSTC fellowships will help shape a nascent scientific institution as it provides humans with a vast new perspective on the night sky.”