Transcript 003 Project Solaris

FEMALE: Direct from the astronomy capital of Australia comes the AstroPodcast. An irregular series of interviews with interesting astro people about projects and passions that keep their eyes to the sky.

ALLISON: Welcome to the AstroPodcast. Allison here. Today we talk to three young Polish astronomers that are here at Siding Spring setting up the equipment, both hardware and software, for Project Solaris. We’ll talk more about what Project Solaris actually is, as well as talking about their travels between here and South Africa and other places and what they actually like about Australia, and in particular, Coonabarabran where we are. I hope you find it entertaining and informative and I’ll talk back with you at the end of the podcast.

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ALLISION: Here we are with the AstroPodcast and we have three young gentlemen here—one of the claims not to be young but I don’t believe him—from Poland. And I’m going to get them to announce their names and then we’ll start talking about their project here in Australia. Starting from the left.

STAN: Hi, it’s Stan here.

RAFAL: Rafal. Hello!

PIOTR: And Piotr.

ALLISON: And Piotr. Okay, we’ve got you guys here in Australia and usually we have Polish people come to be backpackers and you guys, as you strode across the road today, you looked very backpacker-ish, but why are you guys here in Australia? Tell us about your project?

PIOTR: So maybe I will start. Our project is international project but main base is in Poland. It’s run by Polish Academy of Science and we are students of this institution and we are building the global network of robotic telescopes, half a meter telescopes, we will do photometry with those telescopes and we will look for extra solar second binary planets.

ALLISON: Before we get on to what that actually means (laughs), can you tell me what you’re studying?

PIOTR: Okay. I’m a PhD student of Astronomy in Poland and my area is looking for effects in binary stars. So we know a lot about those stars but still, the precision of this knowledge is not as good as we want it to have it. So we want to know more about those stars, how to measure them, how to get some science from them, and that’s basically what I’m doing.

RAFAL: Okay, I’m the newcomer to the project. Actually I finished astronomy, I’m a master in Astronomy. I’m finishing right now Computer Sciences that’s why they employed me to run the automation on roboting of the system.

ALLISON: What a great combination! (laughs)

RAFAL: Right now?

STAN: I got my masters in Astronomy a few years ago, now I just started my PhD, but I’m also an engineer. I specialize in automation robotics, so that’s what I’m doing in this project right now.

ALLISON: Wow! There’s a lot of letters here! (laughs) So we got engineering, computing and astronomy and an astronomy across the board. So this is an international project, so where else are you installing or setting up?

STAN: This is the interesting part of the project, so in fact Australia is just one of the three sites. We will have one telescope here, we will have two telescopes in South Africa in the South Africa Astronomical Observatory, and one telescope in Argentina. It will be in an observatory called CASLEO and this will allow us to have full coverage of the sky during the whole day, 24 hours. So that’s the basic idea of having a network of telescopes distributed evenly around the globe, not just in one place.

ALLISON: Right! The computer expert, why have you just joined the project? What part are you doing down here at the moment?

RAFAL: Basically he said before that he likes sleeping at night, so that’s the idea because we want to make it robotic, meaning from Poland, back from Poland, we want to run all the telescopes and all the system to trace—for example, we want to trace some stars, some field, from there, not to come here all the time. So that’s the idea behind it. So here we have to install everything and make it run as a service for Torun. So Torun is the city we run in.

ALLISON: All right. You were talking about binary stars and the effects on them. Can you go into more details about what part the project, what exactly you’ll be looking for?

RAFAL: So the interesting thing is that almost all of the stars, I would say, like 60 percent of them, when we look in the sky, are binary stars. So they may look like a single stars, but in fact they are binaries. But because they are so far away, you couldn’t say that they are binaries. But usually they form in a multiple systems, so that’s the common way how the stars are born. And we are looking for planets around those binaries, so you could see double sunset and—there was a movie, I suppose almost everyone’s seen it. There was a Star Wars movie when the—

ALLISON: Tatooine?

RAFAL: Yes. So Luke Skywalker, there is a famous scene, was looking at the sunset of two stars. So we are looking for sunsets and the interesting part is because almost all planets that we know already, almost 700 of them, are around single stars. So the very interesting thing is how do they form, how do they evolve, and if they do exist around binary stars, because we have to, nowadays, to have some statistics and to say if the chance of having the planet around binary star is the same as having the planet around the single star. And what we are doing, we are looking for special effect that the planet revolving around the binary stars have on them. So we can measure the time of the eclipse of the one star on the other star. And the time of this eclipse will move if the third body is present around those stars. So this is what we are looking for and there is one planet already discovered by this method and this was discovered a few months ago, so it’s a big hype and a big thing for us, and it was done by the famous American satellite Kepler and that’s a big thinking to science.

ALLISON: Right! Right! Before we talk about what you are doing here in Australia, you guys, you were here for a small amount of time and then you went off. Can you tell me more about what you did in South Africa?

STAN: Oh, okay. So from the beginning, Australia was our first visit. We managed to do some things but not all we have planned. Then we had to move on to South Africa. We basically started with assembling the domes, which were delivered in a container to South Africa, they’re manufactured in Europe and Germany. And then we assembled the telescope, which is obviously the most important part of the observatory. And we started integrating all the equipment, mainly on the hardware side and getting it to work, calibrate, and prepare everything for softer integration, which is what we are doing in fact right here. The neat thing about all this is we use basically exactly the same equipment everywhere. So the setup is 95 percent the same. Like when we go from one site to another, we have some experience and we just update our things, so when we start doing things in Australia, we already know and have all that we have done in South Africa. So this way we advance much faster rather than if we have completely different set of equipment on each site.

ALLISON: I do know that there’s one thing in Australia they don’t have in South Africa and that’s lady beetles. (laughs)

STAN: Oh yes, yes! In fact, we were dealing with them for the past two weeks and yeah, it seems that it’s really a problem here. Though our dome is pretty well sealed, it’s quite a fancy construction, a fiber glass construction and it’s well sealed, and despite that, these little creatures just found their way inside and concentrated in two spots inside the dome. I think we got rid of them, most of them at least, but—

RAFAL: I don’t think so.

ALLISON: You had to vacuum them?

STAN: Yes, we had to vacuum them. We used a few vacuum bags to get rid of the whole of them.

RAFAL: Sorry, no lady bugs was harmed.

ALLISON: No, that’s right! That was very gentle vacuuming! (laughs)

STAN: Very gentle! (laughs)

ALLISON: Yeah! So I looked at some research, I don’t know if we told you, but oil of mint, have you tried that?


ALLISON: That will repel them. It’s very low tech but maybe…I don’t know if it’ll affect your things to have something sitting in there with some oil and they don’t like the smell, apparently. You should test it.

STAN: So it doesn’t have to be spread anywhere—

ALLISON: No, no! Just the smell and because mint is very minty, you know, the smell. (laughs) Yes! It’s just like toothpaste!

RAFAL: Can you still work in the dome when you spray it?

ALLISON: Yeah! You don’t even need to—you know when you have something that makes a room smell and it just sits there and inert and so you try that. Yeah, you don’t want to spray oil anywhere. On to the computer stuff, you’re doing sort of the—can you tell us more about how you’re connecting to Poland? Is it private, dark fiber or the internet cloud?

RAFAL: The internet and cloud, actually.

ALLISON: Yeah, okay!

RAFAL: We want to move it to the cloud, maybe, in the future because it depends on what kind of software we want to build on. But basically we use the internet to connect to here. So right now, there’s this paradigm to move everything, every software, to move it as a service from the internet. So basically, your computer is just an end point and you do everything there. There, you don’t know what it is, and so here we want to make some services and the clients will be in Torun where to unravel the thing. You’ve got applications that somehow transmit information to the internet. And if you know how to connect to it, how to find it in the internet, you can just connect to it and run everything from there as a service paradigm.


RAFAL: So that is the idea.

ALLISON: That’s pretty cool for nerds like me. I like stuff like that!

RAFAL: Actually, that’s why we want to have some help from the computer engineering people like the universities because actually this is a very sophisticated software, so to run everything we’d like to have everything very up to date now.

ALLISON: Yes, wow! Okay!

PIOTR: I would like to add something because our network will generate tremendous amount of data, so we expect like 50 gigabytes per night from Australia and this is the only place we can have direct transfer from Australia back to Poland. In the other place, South Africa or in Argentina, we will have to use hard drive sent by FedEx to get the data.

ALLISON: And that just blows my mind just to think of that!

PIOTR: So this is not the internet, it’s just moving—

ALLISON: No, so these are something, you’re loading them up and then shipping them off.

PIOTR: Just normal hard drives and that’s much cheaper and faster than the internet.

ALLISON: That’s right! On the donkey!

PIOTR: That was [inaudible – 12:54]

ALLISON: Yeah, yeah, I know! Yeah! I mean…yeah! If you have the normal uploading of data information in real time—well, close to it—what sort of delay is that introducing or it doesn’t really matter for you guys?

PIOTR: For us, it doesn’t really matter. We want to have a view on the network, which can be delayed by one day or maybe a few hours. But in case of some interesting events happening on the sky, we want to interrupt the current program on the telescope and put a new plan, new program on them. So it is possible, even with the very slow internet connection, so that’s possible, but we can wait for a data even one month. That’s okay. The project will last like 5 years, and we expect first results after one or two years, so that’s the—

RAFAL: Think of it like it’s not data you’re transferring. It’s quite fast. The data is the problem.


RAFAL: Sometimes we know we’ve got it locally, but we don’t have them there, so that’s why we got the donkey system.

STAN: But there’s one more thing worth mentioning. We are talking about raw data right now. And each of the site is equipped with a computer with high [inaudible – 14:12] and graphical units that will do basic data reduction and this means that even though we won’t have all the data back in Poland, we will be able to transmit the scientific information that comes from that data on daily basis. I mean, if something happens during the night related to our project or something else, gamma ray burst or whatever that we might be interested in doing sometime in the future, then we will be able to extract this data which will be reduced on site here, so that’s the idea of having like this computer on site that will be able to do this.

PIOTR: Yes, the basic idea is like everything—maybe not everything—but most of the stuff you can ultimatize, call it this way. So—

ALLISON: You can say it much better than I can. I can’t say—(laughs)

PIOTR: Thank you.

ALLISON: Ultimate! That’s it.

PIOTR: Thank you.

STAN: So if you can do it, we’d like to do it because you want the results before the morning coffee. So you wake up and you got the result. You can say I did it even though it’s the system.

ALLISON: Yeah, it’s fabulous! So this setup is strictly for the one project?

STAN: Yes, but somehow we must show our results because the funding agency requires us to show results of what we have applied for doing here, so that will take most of the time the first 5 years with the project. But of course it doesn’t mean we cannot do other things that will not interfere with the project we are observing, which is quite specific because we have a selected group of targets, which we have to monitor all the time and they’re not always visible, and many, many other aspects have to be taken into account, so there will be times when the telescopes will have some free time. And we’ll of course use this time for scientific experiments or whatever.

ALLISON: Sure! So—sorry?

PIOTR: I would like to add something. Because we are open for the corporation and the free time, the time we won’t use can be spent on anything, so if someone has a good idea and nice project, we are open for propositions that won’t be much time, but still, that will be something, so that’s the nice thing.

ALLISON: Sure! That’s very nice of you, guys.

PIOTR: Actually, we’re observing the fields, so if somebody’s got the target in the field can be observed as well.

ALLISON: Fabulous! Specifically then, it sounds like you’ve got a bunch of targets already picked out that you want to have a look at as hot spots or whatever. Who chose them and why were they chosen sort of thing?

STAN: Okay, I think it’s time to mention our boss.

ALLISON: Yes! They paying the money as well?

PIOTR: He’s paying, he’s our boss, so Professor Maciej Konacki from Poland.


PIOTR: And he had an idea, let’s say 7 or 8 years ago, about looking for those planets around binaries and he chose from the catalog called ASAS. I think that’s the acronym. And it’s the catalog of stars and light curves, so you can see what type of the stars you can have and he chose some computers to get rid of the not very optimistic stars, let’s say maybe not very good stars for our project, and after some time of simulations and tests, we chose the site of 300 binary stars that are most promising stars. So they are a very short period stars, so we can get eclipse every few days or even every day, so that’s interesting because what we measure it’s the time of the eclipse. So we want to have them as many as possible and they have to be separated. Many of binary stars are somehow connected. The influence has an impact on the data reduction. And the data reduction is much more difficult, so we chose easier targets that can be easily measured. So that’s the basic filter we applied for those stars.


PIOTR: I remember something, I will some more information. Because we also look at bright stars, our telescope are not so big, they are half a meter in diameter, so the stars have to be pretty bright. And because this is quite important for us, those stars are pretty close to Earth as well. This wasn’t choiced, but because we want to have bright stars, the bright stars are usually much closer to the Earth. So if we discover something, it should be close.

STAN: Because most of the stars are in the universe, at least the universe as we know it, are binary stars. So it was easier to look for stars, for planets around single stars before because there are many techniques that allow to do it quite easily. And no one, in fact, bothered to look at the binary stars, which in fact are very, very common. So that’s one thing that’s interesting. And I think doing interesting things in science and doing something that hasn’t been done before is what makes it so nice and interesting.

ALLISON: I mean, are you looking for Earth-type planets or just like any planet?

PIOTR: Because of the setup of our network, we will be able to look only on the massive Jupiter-like planets. So that’s the point. And it’s quite interesting also to know how the planets evolve, how do they form. And if we discover planets, our own binaries, it says something. Even if we don’t discover them, it’s says something as well. It says that it’s much more difficult to form a planet around the binary star and then it’s a bit sad fact because we will lose half of the stars.

ALLISON: Yeah, yeah! You were saying that you’ve got a half meter telescope. Can you tell us more about the telescope itself? People would be interested about that.

STAN: So we have two types of instruments. [inaudible – 20:47] in South Africa and Argentina, and due to the good seeing conditions and [inaudible – 20:53] conditions of the observatory and [inaudible – 20:56] here in Australia, this one has almost 26 minutes field of view, the other one which contains half of that. We use a field rotator, filter wheel, it’s pretty common among amateur astronomers, I guess. And a three-stage [inaudible – 21:22] CCTV camera that can go down easily to -70 or -80 degrees without water cooling. It feels very, very low without noise and dark, right, which makes it ideal for very, very precise brightness measurements. So that’s the goal. And I would like just to add a thing to what Piotr said before. Even if we don’t discover something, we will be able to do very high quality and high precision stellar astrophysics because the data that we will have will—I mean, you don’t ever monitor a single star with such accuracy as we plan to do it. I mean, it will be very interesting topic for next years for student masters or whatever. So given the field that we have here, for example, we might find other interesting things in the fields that we will be observing here.

ALLISON: Right! What have you got to do now and what stage are you at here at Siding Spring?

RAFAL: Well, the hardware is mostly set, so right now we want to put the software on it for us when we leave to be able to connect to it back from Poland and just run the tests first and then actually observe.

ALLISON: Right! And it’s going to be basically unmanned and completely automated, is that the plan?

PIOTR: It’s supposed to be like that. The idea is to have the robotic network of telescopes and the pipeline to reduce the data and then the papers will be produced, let’s say—

RAFAL: For us. (laughs)

PIOTR: For us. We just had to sign here!

STAN: It’s a good thing Piotr mentions our friend Milena, who is also—Milena and Kris, they are also on the team. They are not here, but Milena, at one stage, promised that she’s dealing with the data pipeline. The data pipeline will not only produce scientific data, but submit the papers. So—

ALLISON: Ah! You don’t have to write them yourself!

STAN: Yeah! Correct English, so I think this is a good thing to mention in this podcast that Milena checks—

ALLISON: That she’s promised?

STAN: Yes, she promised, so (laughs)

ALLISON: We’ll hold it to that—actually, they’re coming in a couple of months, aren’t they?

STAN: Two weeks, in fact.

ALLISON: Oh, two weeks! Okay—

STAN: A couple of weeks, in fact. The beginning of March?


ALLISON: Yeah, all right. We’ll get her down and question her about her promises—

PIOTR: [inaudible – 23:50]

ALLISON: That’s right! I heard you promise—

PIOTR: You will be able to verify it, maybe ask some questions and the answer will be “What?”

ALLISON: (laughs) So here in Australia you will be finishing up in how long and—

STAN: At the end of March. That’s the idea. And we hope that we will do it. And we have two almost operational telescopes in South Africa, but because of some delays, we wasn’t able to introduce all the security systems, so we want to go back to South Africa for a few weeks to finish everything there, but we hope that Australia will be the first truly operational—

ALLISON: Yes, Australia is going to be first (laughs).

PIOTR: And we respect that.

ALLISON: Of course you do! (laughs) Once you’ve done this, you guys are going to be—well, some of you will be involved in the next 5 years, is that the case for all of you or…?

STAN: Well, I guess—

RAFAL: I’m finishing my PhD in a year or two, so I’ll move to other projects, but still will be somehow connected with this project, but Stan has just started.

STAN: I plan to use the network for other PhD-related work.

ALLISON: Get it to write those papers as well.

STAN: Yes.

ALLISON: Here in the Australia, you’ve said that you respect our thing about being the first as well, so we’d like to hear how wonderful the country is and everything, but I mean how have you found—it’s interesting to me, you guys leaving Poland, which we imagine is cold, snowing all the time.

PIOTR: -20 right now.

ALLISON: You know, if not, it’s raining everywhere, one where’s green is very unhappy. I mean, you come to Australia and this is just [inaudible – 26:37]. I mean, you come to Australia, lots of sunshine, so how you find—and going to South Africa as well and Argentina, if you guys went, like what’s your impression about that? How’s it been as an experience?

PIOTR: Maybe I will start. I think every place is a bit different. Every place has its pluses and minuses. And South Africa is very exotic, very interesting, but a bit dangerous, so we can say that Australia you can leave the door open here. You don’t have to care about your car if you left the key inside, that’s not a problem.

ALLISON: Don’t worry about the people, just the animals. (laughs)

PIOTR: In South Africa, you can feel that it’s important, the security is pretty important. But anyways, Sydney and Cape Town, the places where we have been, are beautiful cities and I think everyone would like to live there, even if they have small drawbacks like sharks, deadly spiders and snakes.

ALLISON: The ants…(laughs)

PIOTR: We don’t have it in Poland, let’s say. It’s quite easy just to kill a spider with your hand and you are not supposed to do it in Australia, I think.

ALLISON: No, don’t touch the spiders! (laughs)

PIOTR: And as you said, Poland is a pretty cold country, but I would say we have hot summer and very cold winter, so we have both coldness and warmness of climate. And it’s easy to do the skiing during the winter, to do summer sports as well, but it’s much more—how would you say that—on one side you have big differences.


PIOTR: The variety is much greater.

ALLISON: It’s very, like, condensed Europe, like you were talking about skiing, we would have to drive the equivalent of driving across Europe to go skiing, where you just go down the road, you know?

STAN: It’s a good point, not to mention that South Africa, both South Africa and Australia you have a lot of open space and like the site here now, Siding Springs Observatory, the view is just breathtaking. I mean, you won’t expect something like this in Europe in most places. Even though we have very beautiful mountains and very, very, very beautiful landscapes, there is much more people. The population density is much higher and here you can just go for a walk and then you can see no one and you can drive for a hundred kilometers on the road that’s straight to the horizon and meet no one on the road.

ALLISON: That’s right!

STAN: And that‘s something that we really miss in Poland and generally in Europe. I mean, it’s really good to be able to see this here.

PIOTR: We do love our country.

ALLISON: Oh, absolutely, yes! This is an international podcast. Well, thank you very much, guys! Is there anything anywhere that people online could go look at your project or do you have a website or—

PIOTR: You can check our project on

ALLISON: Okay. And I’ll put a link to your—

PIOTR: Oh, I’m sorry—

ALLISON: Oh, .eu.


ALLISON: Right. Okay. And I’ll put a link on the show notes and everything for it. Well, thank you very much! Very much appreciate your time, guys. Thanks!

PIOTR: Thank you very much!

[Sound effects]

ALLISON: What a great bunch of guys and fabulous sense of humors as well. Is that a word? Sense of humors? Senses of humor. That sounds better! I thoroughly enjoyed doing this interview, and if you enjoyed it, I’d really appreciate if you leave a comment and a review on iTunes. 5 stars, please! Also, if you’ve got an idea about what you would like one of our guests to talk about, how about popping over to the website or our Facebook page, or click on the link on to our Facebook page and leave a suggestion there. Love to hear from you!

FEMALE: Thanks for listening to the Astro Podcast. Why not leave a comment and rating on iTunes so other people can listen in to. If you want to nominate someone to be interviewed, then send an email to and she’ll do her best to make it so.



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