Five minutes with Adrian Russell

ESO’s Director of Programmes talks building telescopes, developing technology and herding cats!

15 January 2021
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • How Adrian went from studying electrical engineering to working in astronomy
  • How the Director of Programmes contributes to ESO’s overall mission
  • What Adrian is most excited about in the future of astronomy
Adrian Russell looks back on how he got into astronomy and his path to becoming Director of Programmes at ESO. He shares with us what some of the most exciting new projects at ESO are, how the field of astronomy has changed in his career and what he is most looking forward to in the future.

Q. How did you get into astronomy?

A. When as a kid, I was just the right age when the Apollo moon landings were happening, so I got hooked on science very early on.

But actually, at university I studied electrical and electronic engineering, not physics. At the end of my first year, I was working a summer job in a factory in Sheffield in the UK. I bought this book from the second-hand bookshop next door called The New Astronomy by John Gribbin. It was the story of the post-war technology revolution that led to radio astronomy and then the discovery of quasars and all kinds of strange objects. I was completely hooked, and I immediately bought a whole bunch more books about astronomy. I was all set to change my degree.

I was completely hooked, and I immediately bought a whole bunch more books about astronomy. I was all set to change my degree.

However, in the Department of Electrical Engineering, there was a poster from the University of Edinburgh, where they did an MSc in Astronomical Technology. So I wrote to Malcolm Longair, who was the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, director of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and professor at the university to ask his advice and amazingly he actually wrote back. He said, “Do not stop with what you're doing at the moment. My first degree was in electrical engineering as well. Send me your course options and try to choose the more physics-related options.”

From there, my final year undergraduate project was in astronomy-related technology, understanding the impact of the design of the radome on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) - this is the white wind screen that covers the entrance of the telescope. At the time it was going to be supported by a series of wires – which would have impacted its performance. After this I did a heavily instrumentation-based PhD in astronomy at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, before getting a job at the JCMT.

Q. What led you to your position as Director of Programmes at ESO?

A. Basically, I gathered more and more relevant experience. I transitioned from helping run instruments on the telescope to managing the JCMT instrumentation when I went back to Edinburgh. I had no idea what management was but with mentoring from the chief engineer at the Royal Observatory, I learned how to interact with groups, build instruments and herd cats!

The next big step was becoming the UK project manager for Gemini, where I learned about building telescopes and the issues associated with having contracts to do so, then I ended up running the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, with about 100 people.

When I saw that there was an opportunity to work on ALMA, it seemed like a combination of everything that I had done. I understood the technology of the single dish instrumentation pretty well and what it was like to build telescopes. It was a big step because I'd never managed a project of that magnitude and it was a complex and international project.

When the position of Director of Programmes at ESO arose, it just seemed like a fantastic opportunity. ALMA was almost finished and it was the chance to become involved in the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) early on and be part of the world's leading optical observatory with a really vibrant instrumentation programme. And it was still working in an organisation that was helping finish ALMA. So it just seemed like an opportunity too good to miss.

Q. How does the Directorate of Programmes contribute to ESO's mission?

A. A big part of ESO’s mission is to develop new technologies, deliver new instruments and telescopes and that's where we come in.

Our day job really is entirely looking after these new things that are beyond state of the art: whether it's the ELT or an upgrade to an instrument like CRIRES. Our work is to deliver those projects in a timely way and to try and control our appetite for doing too many things at once.

A big part of ESO’s mission is to develop new technologies, deliver new instruments and telescopes and that’s where we come in.

There are always difficulties with scheduling, with technical issues and in that we're managing activities that are heavily distributed across big consortia. The scientists and engineers in these consortia are highly competent, but at the end of the day they still need significant support from ESO as well, and that's a big part of what we do.

Q. What does a typical day as Director of Programmes look like?

A. I'm not sure there is a typical day. We run these programmes by empowering the individual programme managers to do their jobs in managing the ELT, and the Paranal Instrumentation and technology development programs. My job involves interacting with them about what the latest issues are. It's always dominated by a mixture of funding and effort availability. Technical problems come and I hear about them but mostly they get solved by the technical teams because they are extremely competent.

These days, an awful lot of time and energy is spent by everybody on the ELT and that includes me. The ELT programme manager, Roberto Tamai, is in charge, but I discuss with him a lot about what's going on with the ELT.

There are also wider initiatives to try and improve ESO as a whole, which the directors’ team are fairly heavily involved in.

Q. What do you find particularly rewarding about your role?

A. Just being able to earn a living doing something I really enjoy is fantastic but if you get more specific than that, the single biggest buzz personally is definitely seeing the progress made by our teams. These days, it's very rare that I get my hands dirty directly but being able to see the work of so many people empowered to make everything go forward is incredibly exciting.

On those occasions when I'm at the Paranal Observatory at night, looking up and standing amongst these machines, I still get that tingle down my spine realising that I play a part in what's generating this. I also really like seeing the results that come out, like the first image of a black hole from the Event Horizon team. Realising that you'd worked more than half a decade to enable it to happen in some small way is fantastic.

Q. How would you say astronomy has changed since you started in it?

When I first started some instruments were small enough that you could carry them under your arm. The instruments we are building on the ELT, they are the size of small houses: you could live inside them!

A. When I first started some instruments were small enough that you could carry them under your arm. The instruments we are building on the ELT, they are the size of small houses: you could live inside them! The level of complexity, the sheer size, the cost has gone up by orders of magnitude and that has changed things, for the better and for the worse. When I was a PhD student, it was still possible for a student to be heavily involved in building an instrument, take it to the telescope and do science with it. That's becoming more and more difficult as very large consortia are now building the instruments. You worry about where the next generation of instrumentalists will come from, but obviously they are still involved in projects in different ways.

So, the scale size of science and how that impacts the ability of individuals on the technology side is a big change. Another is, it's getting more and more difficult for astronomers to get involved in the technology as opposed to really good engineers getting involved in astronomy, and I think that leadership role is at threat because projects have to be science driven. At ESO, I think we manage a good balance between really good scientists and really good engineers working together but these instrumentally savvy astronomers are still fundamental I think, to being able to design, build, envision and even operate telescopes.

Q. You’ve been at ESO for 10 years, what are you looking forward to in ground-based astronomy in the next 10 years?

A. For me, by far the number one thing is for the ELT to see first light, and to come into operation. I’m excited about the new instruments that are getting built and about prospects for technology development, growing and working more with the community and industry, but if I had to pick just one thing unequivocally it's the ELT.

If I had to pick just one thing, I’m most looking forward to the ELT coming into operation.

On a global scale, I would say it's the ELTs plural. I'm also sure that the Vera C. Rubin Observatory coming into operation will be breathtaking. I think that the other big international projects like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), the latter of which we are heavily involved in, will be an exciting new thing for ESO as well.

Q. So it will be interesting to see what happens after the ELT if the scale continues to grow to even bigger telescopes.

A. Yes, though there is some push back. There are wide-field projects that people are trying to get off the ground, like the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer, which are dropping back down again in scale size. I think everybody has found that ELT-sized telescopes are very hard to get funded.

What we want to do in five years is almost certainly not what we think we want to do now, as it is very much driven by new scientific discoveries.

Building the VLT over 20 years ago was a huge stretch for ESO as well, so in the intervening period, a global collaboration to afford ALMA was maybe inevitable. I can see that might be a natural model, in that ESO’s next big project might actually be a slightly smaller and globally collaborative project. Our thoughts today are preliminary at best because what we want to do in five years is almost certainly not what we think we want to do now, as it is very much driven by new scientific discoveries and how the ELT will turn out. Which again is what makes it exciting!

Q. Can you tell me about an interesting new instrument or upgrades at Paranal or La Silla in the next few years?

A. I think I'm probably most excited by GRAVITY+: upgrading the existing GRAVITY instrument so it can become sensitive enough to really extend optical interferometry into the extragalactic world. We are also planning a new spectrographic instrument inspired by MUSE but observing in blue light. That will also be fabulous and will complement the redder wavelengths observed by the ELT and others. Additionally, ideas about how we might improve the SPHERE instrument are incredibly exciting, as these are all steps towards actually characterising and looking for life on exo-Earths with the ELT in the not too distant future.

Q. Can you tell us about a technology in development that you're particularly excited about?

A. One of the most exciting developments already underway when I arrived at ESO was these “avalanche detectors” in the infrared. These are ultra-low noise sensors inside the GRAVITY instrument. We are trying to make these sensors bigger: if they became big enough to be science detectors that would be a truly disruptive technology. Current infrared technology is really being pushed to its limit, so noiseless detectors would be one incredibly exciting area.

Another area that is unbelievably exciting is what's happening with solid-state lasers. These are used as artificial guide stars at the telescope to account for most of the distorting effect of the atmosphere, but right now you still need to use real stars in the sky as well. We are researching and developing a different way to measure this distortion using just the lasers, which could give you 100% sky coverage. We're not guaranteeing that at the moment but that would be such a disruptive technology that it would really impact every observation that uses adaptive optics.

There are many more things in technology development that are getting on with the job: like developing bigger and faster deformable mirrors so the ELT can find Earth analogues. We need to detect just one photon coming from the planet for every 1 000 000 000 from the star and today nobody knows exactly how to do that, but we need better deformable mirrors and so that work is ongoing. The series of incremental improvements over a number of years could in the end be transformative.

Q. Finally, what would you do if you weren't working in astronomy?

A. I really don't know; I was going down the electronic engineering path before I got the astronomy bug in a big way and that would have probably moved me into the telecoms area. But I'm afraid I got hooked on astronomy so early on that that dominated.

These days, I could easily spend a lot of my life doing photography, but I doubt if I would ever make a living that way and maybe it would spoil the fun of the hobby. But at one point astronomy was my hobby, and I certainly have no regrets about choosing it.

Interview with
Adrian Russell

Numbers in this article

10 How many years Adrian has been at ESO
1983 Year Adrian graduated in Electrical and Electronic Engineering
2011 Year ALMA saw first light
1 000 000 000 How many photons come from the star compared to 1 from an Earth-like planet

Biography Adrian Russell

Originally from Sheffield in England, Adrian graduated from the University of Sheffield in 1983 with a 1st Class Honours degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering before undertaking a Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge (Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory). In 1987 he joined the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and went on a three-year tour of duty as a support scientist for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

In 1990 Adrian spent a two-year sabbatical with Professor Reinhard Genzel's group at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching near Munich Germany where he worked on very high frequency sub-mm instrumentation for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. He became the Head of the JCMT Instrumentation Programme at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh in 1992. He was the UK Project Manager for the Gemini twin 8-metre telescopes project from 1995 to 2001. In 1996 he was made Deputy Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and was appointed as the first Director of the U.K. Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh in 1998. In January 2005, Adrian joined NRAO as North American ALMA Project Manager and subsequently he was made North American ALMA Project Director.

Adrian took up his position as Director of Programmes at ESO in July 2010. He is married and has two daughters.