Originally published in the May 2023 issue of the CTAO Newsletter.
Q&A with Project Scientist, Roberta Zanin
Building an observatory is no small feat, especially when it comes to ensuring that what is built achieves the science goals of the scientists it is going to serve. As the CTAO’s Project Scientist, Roberta Zanin is responsible for providing a link between the CTAO’s engineers and the science community to make sure that everything from the telescope specifications to the data products are designed and built to achieve the ultimate mission of the CTAO: to make unprecedented discoveries about the gamma-ray Universe. We sat down with Roberta to learn more about her and her work toward making the CTAO a world-class observatory…
Tell us about yourself and how you came into your present role.
I decided to study Physics when I was 13 years old. At that age, I discovered what an internal combustion engine was at school and found it fascinating — I think I always had a very experimental approach to all aspects of my life! However, it was clear to me that I did not want to be an engineer, but a physicist. What I was looking for was to study and understand the basic principles of science.
This is how I started my Physics degree at the Università di Padova (Italy), where I entered the field of astroparticle physics. Within this, I opted for gamma-ray astronomy and ended up doing my master’s thesis on the MAGIC telescopes, the preceding generation of the CTAO.
Over the years, I participated and worked in the different instruments that compose the current generation of Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes or IACTs (H.E.S.S., MAGIC and VERITAS), where I had different coordination positions, especially focused on galactic physics. In fact, my field of study focused on the understanding of the very high-energy emission emitted by Galactic sources, such as rapid rotating and magnetized neutron stars (pulsars), their environment (Pulsar Wind Nebulae), or binary systems ejecting powerful jets (microquasars).
My involvement with the CTAO started as a member of the Cherenkov Telescope Array Consortium (CTAC), where I served as Coordinator of the Galactic Working Group and worked in the development of software for data analysis and operation. When the position of Project Scientist was opened in 2019 at the CTAO gGmbH, I knew I wanted to apply: after almost 15 years dedicated to ground-based gamma-ray astronomy, being able to work directly in the definition of the first ground-based IACT observatory’s science was really exciting.
What does a Project Scientist do do and why is it important to the future of CTAO?
The Project Scientist is responsible for all science-related aspects of the Observatory, which involves working on different fronts. From one side, I have to ensure that all science requirements are met during the construction phase: if, for example, the engineers need to revise the design of an instrument, I work with them to guarantee that the change’s impact on the science performance of the Observatory is acceptable. From another side, I am the Observatory’s interface with the scientific community. Thus, I collect science users’ feedback and proposals, and work together with them to define the science cases and priorities for the CTAO.
Moreover, as Project Scientist, I had to recently evaluate the scientific implications of the Observatory’s reduced configuration. The CTAO benefits from a modular configuration and, while the ultimate goal is to have more than 100 telescopes between two sites, the approved configuration to be built based on current available funds, includes 64 telescopes. The definition of such configuration, named Alpha Configuration, and the geographical position of all elements (telescopes, calibration systems and atmospheric characterization devices) was the result of a meticulous optimization process for each array’s scientific capabilities, carried out in collaboration with the CTAC members.
What are you working on now?
Now that the scope of the CTAO construction project (its Alpha Configuration) has been defined, I am advancing in the definition of the Scientific Operations Concept, and this is really important: at the end, we are building this Observatory to optimize the scientific outcomes and discoveries and for that, we need to have clear processes and workflows behind observation planning, data collection, reduction and dissemination, so that observations are carried out as expected and data is properly made available to the worldwide scientific community.
In preparation also for future data, I am working on the CTAO Science Data Challenge (SDC), our first publicly available data challenge to broaden the scientific community and allow astronomers from any field to become familiar with CTAO’s scientific capabilities and data analysis. The SDC represents an important milestone for the construction project, since it allows us to verify the requirements of the software packages, test the software algorithms (observation planning and scientific analysis tools), validate the data models and formats, test the scientific portal prototype and authentication system, among many other important parameters.
At the same time, and thinking about the involvement of scientists at different levels of their career, we are starting the preparation of the first CTAO International School and of the second edition of the CTAO Symposium. The former’s goal is to train young scientists in gamma-ray astronomy, while the latter aims to become a meeting point for the high-energy astrophysics community, as an international conference to talk about the latest news of the CTAO and impact within multi-wavelength and multi-messenger astronomy.
Very busy, and yet exciting, time for science with the CTAO!