Collaborative Capability Building in Astrophysics with Thailand

Lead Research Organisation: Liverpool John Moores University
Department Name: Astrophysics Research Institute


LJMU Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) has recently renewed its 5 year MoU with Thailand covering cooperation on joint astronomy development. Professor Mike Bode at ARI is also helping them to develop their national 5 year plan for astronomy development.

The Thais, through the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) are using astronomy to foster the take-up of STEMM subjects nationally to the long-term benefit of their economy. To this end, they are rapidly developing several public observatories across the country. Each of these for example employs around ten full-time outreach staff, has a planetarium, large lecture space, robotic telescopes and strong links into the regional educational system. Over the years, LJMU's National Schools' Observatory has developed links with the Thais on outreach. As part of the Newton project we enhance these links further by developing exemplar joint materials for outreach projects.

In addition, NARIT is rapidly developing the astronomical research infrastructure of Thailand, again because it is seen as an important part of their nation's long-term economic development. For example, they now operate a 2.4m telescope on Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon, and are rapidly increasing the number of PhD-qualified staff across the country through a programme of sending students to study for their PhDs abroad and then bringing them back to Thailand in permanent university positions. They are keen to develop their technological capability in tandem with this and have expressed a strong interest in being a future partner in the LJMU 4m robotic Liverpool Telescope 2 (LT2) project at the level of 10% of the capital cost of the project (£16m). For LT2 NARIT have indicated where they may contribute software or an instrument among other aspects. There is a strong emphasis on the time domain in the burgeoning Thai astronomy community, so there is an excellent academic fit between the Thai's and ARI/LT/LT2. In the short term, one potential area ARI is keen to pursue with NARIT is developing a novel fast photometer for use on their 2.4m telescope and LT/LT2 with substantially improved performance compared to ULTRASPEC, which is currently used on the Thai National Telescope (Dr Chris Copperwheat, the LT astronomer-in-charge was heavily involved in the development of ULTRASPEC). For optimum QE and performance we would explore prototyping a new fast photometer using sCMOS camera technology, instead of EMCCDs. Developing this capability for LT/LT2 would facilitate a range of new science within time domain astronomy: CV studies, asteroseismology, exoplanets, occultations etc. The first step in this activity is laboratory testing of the sCMOS detectors to determine their stability, sensitivity, noise characteristics and ability to be accurately synchronised in a mutli-beam setup. This activity would form the basis of the instrumentation component of this initial Newton fund grant.

Overall in this initial 3 month grant, Newton funding will enable us to work with the Thais to scope their participation in these activities and start the the process of software and instrument collaboration, along with developing new astronomy outreach projects. This will help to foster a larger partnership with NARIT centred on LT2 and to the benefit of Thai astronomy and the wider Thai economy.

Planned Impact

In this section we describe the specifically the UK impact ARI's instrumentation and outreach activity. We aim to begin the process of developing similar impacts in Thailand as part of this grant as detailed in the Project Summary.

The ARI at Liverpool JMU has a long tradition of strong industrial engagement. The initial build of the Liverpool Telescope (LT) was based around the establishment of a spinout company (TTL, Telescope Technologies Ltd) which was subsequently sold in 2005 to an ex-Google employee to build a global network of small (0.4 and 1 metre) robotic telescopes.

ARI has ongoing strong links with a number of local engineering SMEs. Through our collaboration with them the companies have upgraded their skills and machinery to deliver the high precision needed for astronomical instrumentation. These contracts safeguarded a number of jobs and one company received a grant from MAS (Manufacturing Institute, via the local council organization Wirral Direct) for the purchase of a new, more accurate, CNC lathe for precision machining. Ongoing work with ARI also features as part of their advertising, using the telescope as an example of a high-profile/high-technology client. Reputations developed in precision engineering for astronomical applications over the past 10 years have led to contracts with other international observatories (e.g., the new WHT Auxiliary camera and a potential WEAVE contract) and with CERN, producing the chain links that carry cooling pipes and electrical cables for the LHC.

Skills and knowledge transfer are furthered by the direct involvement of students (undergraduate and postgraduate) in development projects. ARI has consistently included undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students in instrument and software design and development with these projects forming the basis of several PhD theses. Most of these students have left academic research for wider industry.

We have also had success in licensing software and hardware developed for the telescope to the Faulkes/LCOGT organization. License income of £160k plus telescope time worth an additional £180k on the LCO telescopes has been received by LJMU from this activity.

Public Engagement

The LT is a focus for a significant fraction of the extensive Public Engagement programme in Astrophysics at LJMU. As well as many talks and workshops to schools and the general public (e.g. in 2012/13 over 150 talks to over 10,000 people were given based on the LT) the LT is also key to the success of a suite of Distance Learning courses in Astronomy that attract around 200 students a year, many of whom have little or no prior experience of Higher Education.

The LT is also an important element in the Spaceport visitor attraction on the banks of the river Mersey. The attraction regularly exceeds visitor number predictions (currently at around 70,000 per year) and brings considerable income into a regeneration area. Using the standard STEAM model (Digest of Tourism Statistics, Dec. 2009 - The Mersey Partnership) for determining the economic benefits of tourism in the City Region for day visitors, this equates to a net gain of more than £2m per year. Spaceport also contributed towards the success of Mersey Ferries being ranked 1st in the City Region in 2008 - when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture - for a paid tourist attraction and an independent MORI Poll from 2006 found that 97% of visitors to Spaceport were either satisfied or very satisfied with their visit. Due to this success, the original targets for the regeneration have been met or exceeded. These include the creation of an estimated 50 new jobs, both direct and indirect, which equates to a gross value added of £1.4m pa to the City Region.


10 25 50
Description The shared work enabled future collaborations on more substainian Newton Fund projects to be developed.
Exploitation Route The improved capability at NARIT has enabled collaboration with other UK and international partners.
Sectors Other

Description ODA Impacts. This project seeks to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 through using examples of astronomical technology development to deliver high quality technical, vocational and tertiary training and collaboration as a route to economic development. Thailand is an example of a nation suffering from the `middle income trap', in which their economy has developed to the point where their competitive edge in exports of goods has been blunted by rising wages, but they cannot yet compete in high-value added sectors with more developed economies. Increased technical, vocational and tertiary education is one route towards escaping the trap, developing the technical skills within the workforce necessary for an advanced, innovation driven society. It will also work to improve the education of the people in the region improving their employability for future observatory-related employment opportunities. The IEET report "The Role of Science and Technology in the Developing World in the 21st Century" (Lee-Roy Chetty 2012) shows how building a workforce with high value skills for employment enables technological and scientific developments and creates an innovation driven economy (SDG8) with a high quality infrastructure (SDG9).
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Membership of international advisory board
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Impact Continued growth of astronomy in Thailand.
Description Newton STFC-NARIT: A telescope control system for the next generation of facilities
Amount £186,777 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/R006571/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 03/2020
Description STFC Newton Fund - NARIT - New TCS
Amount £83,168 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/P005659/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 02/2018
Description STFC Newton Fund - NARIT - data flow
Amount £81,882 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/P005640/1 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 02/2018
Title robotic astronomy 
Description procedures, hardware and software systems for the automation of astronomical observations. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact widespread adoption of robotic observing 
Description Collaboration with NARIT (Thailand) 
Organisation National Astronomical Research Institute Of Thailand
Country Thailand 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Expertise in software and electronics for the control and readout of rapid imaging systems. Expertise in telescope and instrument optical, mechanical and control design.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in astronomical instrumentation and telescope development.
Impact Collaboration in development of astrophysical instrumentation, control software.
Start Year 2010