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Astronomy in corona times: 'All the big telescopes were at a standstill.'

Astronomer Ignas Snellen studies exoplanets using telescope observations. But how is that possible when all the big telescopes are more or less at a standstill? Luckily, he has contact from home with a robot telescope in Mexico and his WIFI is finally working well.

What kind of research do you do?

‘In my group we study the atmospheres of exoplanets around other stars than the sun. We ask questions like: What kinds of gases are there in the atmosphere? Do we understand their climate? We focus mainly on gas giants like Jupiter; for the time being, other planets are still too difficult. We're also developing new instruments and observation methods as part of our research.' 

The big telescopes of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile have largely been in lockdown since mid-March. Photo: ESO/H. Heyer

What problems did you come up against when the corona crisis broke out?

‘We still had observations to process and analyse, but they quickly dried up because all the world's major telescopes have been at a standstill for almost two months. Luckily some of them are slowly starting up again. Over the past weeks we have still been in contact with a small robot telescope in Mexico that is doing best to brave the corona crisis. We're hoping it will make some observations for us in the coming month. The work we were doing on instrumentation has to be done in the lab, so that's now on hold.' 

What can you do from home?

‘My own work is mainly guiding research - that's about fifteen projects, some big, some small. I can do all that via Zoom or Skype. But it's enough to drive you slowly mad. Our efficiency is really suffering.  In the lab it's so easy to just pop into someone else's office if you want to ask something, but now you have to call them up for even the tiniest detail. That's the same for all the institute's administrative activities.’

Is it possible to combine research and management with online teaching and your family situation?

‘Fortunately, I'm not teaching this semester, so that helps. There are three of us at home: a teenage son who's doing lessons at home, my wife, who is a professor in Utrecht, and myself. Even the top level of internet wasn't fast enough for the three of us. It really got to me, so I sat down and made careful measurements of the download speed in the house. I found that the WIFI upstairs was fives times slower than downstairs in the hallway - even with all kinds of boosters. A good colleague (thanks, Henk!) gave me some sound advice. It meant a small investment but now it's fantastic. So, if you're having WIFI problems, go for a multi-room mesh WIFI system.' 

Do you see new opportunities coming out of these unusual circumstances?

‘When I add it all up, I now have more time to concentrate on my research. Last month I was supposed to be in Princeton and New York, last week in Bologna and in June a week in Harvard - and between those trips there were also two conferences. None of that could happen. I'm now starting work on a research question that I've been thinking about for a couple of years, but I never had the time to really work on it. It's a bad sign that it's taken this crisis for me to get around to it.'  

'Rushing around the world for every tiny detail is over and done with' 

What are you expecting the 'new normal' will be like in the field of research?

‘Rushing around the world for every minor detail is over and done with and I can't imagine it will ever come back. It was getting totally out of hand. Do I really need to be at those three major conferences every year? In fact, I already skipped them last summer. And a lot of our work discussions can be done online. That will mean a huge improvement in quality, particularly sound quality.'

Any final tip for colleagues about conducting research in times of corona?

‘Invest in your workplace at home, including WIFI. I really don't believe the worst is behind us.' 

Text: Linda van Putten

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