Mapping the universe

Cynthia Froning of University of Texas at Austin navigates between science and technology with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-V
29 June 2022
Karen Thomas
The SDSS’s “Field of Streams” map shows structures of stars in the outer Milky Way
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s “Field of Streams” map shows structures of stars in the outer Milky Way. Credit: V. Belokurov and the SDSS

“The Local Volume Mapper Instrument (LVM-I) is not just an instrument,” says Cynthia Froning, program manager for the LVM-I for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-V (SDSS-V). “It’s a complete facility, so we are building an enclosure, telescopes, fiber IFU, spectrographs, and an automated software-control system.” The SDSS-V is the first dual-hemisphere, multi-epoch, optical and infrared astronomical survey providing multi-object and integral field spectroscopy across the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Froning, also a research scientist at University of Texas at Austin, will be part of a plenary panel at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation in Montréal discussing the SDSS-V’s new instrumentation, including a new three-element, wide-field corrector for the SDSS 2.5m telescope; dual multi-fiber robotic focal plane systems; and a new facility with four small telescopes and three fiber-fed optical spectrographs for integral field observations. This new infrastructure will be described in the context of three flagship science programs: the Milky Way Mapper (MWM), the Black Hole Mapper (BHM), and the Local Volume Mapper (LVM).

What are some of your responsibilities as program manager for the Local Volume Mapper Instrument for SDSS-V?

This work is being done by people and teams around the world. My job is to track budgets and schedules, ensure information is being passed between the sub-system teams in meetings and documents, interface with vendors, and make sure everyone has the resources they need to get their work done.

In addition, I have extensive experience leading instrument verification and commissioning activities, so I am the lead for the on-site Assembly, Integration, and Test phase. Currently, that involves writing the test procedure and managing logistics to make sure we are ready to start installing hardware once the enclosure is ready in August.   

I am an astronomer, not a professional project manager, so I am quite good at navigating between science and technical personnel, but my Gantt charts are no things of beauty!

Cynthia Froning with the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center

Cynthia Froning with the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center during the Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 4. Credit: Courtesy of Cynthia Froning

What are some of the changes and updates you’ve seen with SDSS-V since you joined the project?

I am new to the SDSS world, so I am not familiar with how the surveys were executed in the past. It is a project with a long history and culture, and it has been a pleasure to work within the collaboration. Since I joined SDSS-V, what I have mostly seen is a lot of flexibility — we have had challenges with changing sub-system leads and vendors, exacerbated by the pandemic, and the project has been able to draw upon its deep and broad expertise to respond and keep working toward the survey start.

What are some of the challenges faced by the SDSS-V? How are they being met?

As with most projects over the past couple of years, the pandemic has been a real challenge. Our first enclosure construction firm went bankrupt, our fiber team at AAO was locked down for over three months, and shipping and supply chain issues continue to drive up costs and stretch the schedule. Fortunately, the SDSS-V leadership team retained a significant cash contingency to cover the early cost overruns and was dedicated and successful at raising additional funds to continue to support instrument development and maintain the full survey length.

At the instrument level, we’ve had many people step up and do work outside their nominal areas. One of our project scientists is leading the development of the enclosure. He is learning more about custom HVAC systems than he ever expected.

How does the SDSS-V differ from its predecessors?

Seeing SDSS build on its legacy by continuing to expand the survey scope in the Southern Hemisphere, replace the plug plates with positionable fibers, and create a new survey facility with LVM-I has been exciting to see.

What are some of the aspects of this project that excite you the most?

What attracted me to this project was both the unique scientific scope of LVM — a wide, uniform integral field unit (IFU) survey of the interstellar medium (ISM) in the Milky Way and Local Volume at spatial scales matched to the energy injection scale of interstellar star formation and feedback — and the opportunity to build a complete facility from the ground up.

We are constructing the enclosure, telescopes, fiber IFU, spectrographs, and a robotic software control system. I love learning new things and this project has offered ample opportunity to pick up skills and knowledge. I also appreciate the global collaboration, even if it means telecons at some very odd hours!

SDSS-V is described as “the world’s first all-sky time-domain spectroscopic survey.” How does this advance space mapping and space exploration?

SDSS-V is providing an array of optical and NIR spectroscopy capabilities coupled to wide-field IFU surveys. The BHM and MWM surveys will be able to take advantage of the new positionable fiber system on the 2.4-m telescopes in both hemispheres to obtain multi-epoch spectroscopy with flexible scheduling, while the LVM will be providing a uniform, large-scale survey of interstellar gas at small spatial scales. The combined surveys will provide large-scale surveys of the formation and evolution of super-massive black holes and enable global maps of galactic structure, composition, and kinematics.

What do you see as the future of space mapping/space exploration?

So much of the power in cutting-edge astrophysics today is in multiwavelength data sets with large survey and/or time domain capabilities. The community is working on tools to make this type of science easier to plan, execute, and analyze, but we will have to keep pushing on making coordinated observations more feasible and ensure that as a field, we reward those who do the important work on infrastructure development that enables our science.

What would you like attendees to the panel discussion to know or learn about the SDSS-V?

SDSS surveys rely heavily on contributed scientific and technical development by its members. It’s a great opportunity to get involved at the ground level and get hands-on experience with hardware, software, and data analysis. It’s a great network of scientists and engineers to be connected to.

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