Published by the editorial team, 8 March 2018
ASTRON has been evaluated as excellent in all categories of NWO’s 2017 evaluation process. An international evaluation panel chaired by Steven Kahn, Professor of Natural Science at Stanford University evaluated ASTRON’s past six years performance and its forward strategy for 2017-2023. The evaluation awarded ASTRON the highest rating of excellent.
Radio Astronomy leadership for the future
ASTRON has an outstanding track record in innovation, science and national facility operations. All three aspects of ASTRON’s business clearly impressed the SEP evaluation panel and have since been equally endorsed by the NWO Board (RvB). ASTRON fulfils an important position both nationally and internationally. In particular, the work development of the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope led to a great pan-European collaboration and provides critical expertise towards the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).SKA is an international project to build the world largest radio telescope. The antennas and radio dishes will be constructed at two locations, in Western Australia and South Africa.
ASTRON’s future strategy is to continue this success by further developing LOFAR, and to lead the Dutch technological participation in the SKA.
Telescopes of world class
ASTRON manages and operates two world-class telescopes, LOFAR and the Westerbork Synthesis Telescope (WRST). The evaluation panel endorsed ASTRON’s decision to prioritise to the completion of the new Apertif system on WSRT in 2017-2018. Apertif will ensure the nearly fifty-year-old telescope will operate as one of only two radio arrays equipped with innovative radio ‘cameras’, termed phased array receivers.
Driven by the data collection rate of LOFAR during its observations, ASTRON continues to develop an embedded Science Data Centre. This Science Data Centre will empower astronomers in the Netherlands and beyond to fully exploit the massive (petabytes) of data that span observations, from the state of the earth ionospheres to the largest scale structures and earliest epochs of the Universe.
The Science Data Centre will impact the broader scientific community by sharing algorithms and tools for research. Notably, it will also transfer trained personnel, skills and techniques to applications of big data analysis in society such as healthcare, energy, logistics, personal health, communication, and gaming.
The evaluation panel was impressed by the breadth and impact of the scientific research undertaken by ASTRON. Strategic and international hiring of the past few years have created a team with the skills, motivation and experience to support all aspects of ASTRON’s operations, R&D and science. This top research has resulted in several publications in leading scientific journals such as Science and Nature.
Continuing a world-leading position
The panel also made some excellent recommendations to ASTRON: these include performing more detailed and cross-project risk analyses, continue to assess staff profiles and skills to adapt to changes in the discipline and to build greater diversity in the workforce.
For the future it is clear that ASTRON will play a world-leading role in the international treaty organisation of SKA. The evaluation panel recognises the investment that ASTRON has already made to build SKA-related expertise. ASTRON is now ready to take a leading role in the project, specifically in the field of technological development and science at SKA-Low, and also in data science and management.
Making Discoveries in Radio Astronomy Happen
ASTRON puts its mission ‘Making Discoveries in Radio Astronomy Happen’ into practice. The panel remarked on the collegiality with all groups and departments working closely together to meet and overcome complex technical challenges. LOFAR, and soon Apertif, can be used to make radio observations with unprecedented scientific potential. Overall it was clear to the panel that ASTRON is able to convert its strength in research, R&D and operations to world-class impact.