Long bio (2011)

From ESO Messenger 145, p. 52 (2011).

My passion for science and technology, and in particular for everything related to outer space, dates back to my childhood. My parents offered me my first astronomy book when I was 5. I obviously could not read yet, but I got unique bedtime stories! I remember feeling totally overwhelmed by the amazing photos of the giant planets just taken by the NASA Voyager and Pioneer probes, and fascinated by the brand new space shuttle, to me the most beautiful spacecraft ever made. It was more than enough to imprint my subconscious for the rest of my life. Later on at school, I fell in love with Science and Mathematics, but astronomy or space sciences still seemed so far away. I remember the realism of some of my old respectable high school teachers arguing that astronomy would be a suicidal career choice (!). Guided by pragmatism, I therefore enrolled into engineering at the University of Liege. When I got my first proper astronomy course a couple years later, I was far from thinking that I would do a PhD and that its motivating and dynamic Professor Jean Surdej would be my future thesis advisor!

The fifth and last year of the engineer-physicist cursus required an original contribution. One of the proposed subjects was the four-quadrant phase-mask coronagraph (FQPM), a somewhat cryptic name for me at the time, but I nevertheless jumped in. After being set on tracks with a sample of new ideas to explore, I was almost given carte blanche. Definitely the kind of challenge and freedom that would get my 100% focus! In fact, this subject and its ramifications would keep me busy for the next 10 years, PhD thesis included! In particular, I would invent my own coronagraph, and even find the most esoteric name ever: the vector vortex coronagraph, what a program! 

My first research years in Liege were fantastic, I got to learn and work with amazing people, just to name a few: my thesis advisor Jean Surdej, Olivier Absil, Serge Habraken, Cedric Lenaerts, and many colleagues from the department of physics, and the Centre Spatial de Liege (CSL) where I met my wife Jessica. Thanks to a Marie Curie fellowship, I would also spend a great deal of time in Paris, first at the Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, working with the FQPM team: Daniel Rouan, Anthony Boccaletti, Pierre Riaud, and many others. There, I contributed to the development of the FQPM technology for various instruments: VLT-NACO, JWST-MIRI, and even for SPHERE, which I consider one of my major contributions! I also spent half a year at the Institut of Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay working with Alain Leger and his team on nulling interferometry for Darwin/TFP-I, and on the very interesting subject of Ocean Planets. 

So I really fell early in the exoplanet science and technology caldron. While technologies have always fascinated me, it appeared very soon that it would be very hard to compete on the faculty job market with a technologist profile, what a shame. In the glorious days of physics, science and technology, and more specifically optics and astronomy, were much closer than nowadays (think about Galileo, Newton!). Doubly motivated, I then worked very hard to take my technological inventions to telescopes in order to do unique science benefiting from their advanced optical functions. It took many years and a NASA postdoc followed by a permanent position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory - California Institute of Technology, which is blessed by its accessibility of the Palomar Observatory, to do just that. The culmination of this effort, which involved many people, was the imaging of the extra-solar giant planets around HR8799 with a small 1.5-meter portion of the 5.1 Palomar Hale telescope, using the coronagraph I invented and developed from scratch, proof-testing the first on-sky extreme adaptive optics system and related high contrast imaging techniques from A to Z. In parallel to these technical accomplishments, I started to get serious about observing programs: my co-Is and I initiated extensive exoplanet hunt programs using high contrast imaging at Palomar, Keck, VLT and Gemini. Our strategy has been to maximize the synergy between space and ground-based platforms: we use the output of survey missions such as Spitzer and WISE to form unique samples of identified extra-solar systems for ground-based follow-ups. 

At JPL-Caltech, I had the opportunity to work with fantastic colleagues, from whom I learned a lot: Gene Serabyn, co-PI of the Keck nuller, TPF-I, initial project scientist for MIRI, was my postdoc advisor; John Trauger, my supervisor was the PI of the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, the camera that saved the Hubble Space Telescope; John Krist, and Karl Stapelfeldt, are two of the most prolific scientists in circumstellar disk science; Mark Swain, a world-leader in exoplanet transit spectroscopy; Michael Werner, the project scientist of the Spitzer space telescope; Wes Traub, Chief Scientist for NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program, Stuart Shaklan, Bertrand Mennesson, Peter Lawson, the list goes on and on. I felt very lucky to be surrounded so prestigiously in my early career. I deeply enjoyed my 3.5-year stay at JPL. It was quite amazing to work at the very place that built the probes that took the fantastic images that had inspired me as a kid 25 years before! My wife and I totally blended in as Californians. California is very different from the rest of the US. It is the most progressive, liberal, dynamic state in the world. It is also a magnificent place to live, with amazing cities, wild coasts, huge mountains, deserts all at hands (a little bit like Chile!). We were especially proud to live in a State promoting Nature conservancy and green technologies so strongly, making it an example for the rest of the US and the world.

In just a few years, the NASA budgets allocated to exoplanet research and in particular to the TPF program have been dramatically crumbling. On top of that, the 2010 Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics killed what was left of it. It became clear that a NASA-led exoplanet mission would not see the light before many years. Things are not getting better as we speak (the JWST is now in the line of fire too!). There also seems to be a lot of procrastination in the US about what to do for the extremely large ground-based telescope. While I am convinced this turmoil is only temporary (*), these are amongst the professional reasons why I looked towards Europe and especially ESO, which I still had an eye on through my research and numerous contacts (I have been a user of the VLT for many years). ESO seems to be the only organization providing the community with state-of-the-art facilities and top-notch services, and at the same time with a clear view of its future, with ambitious but pragmatic medium- and long-term goals (second-generations instrument for the VLT, ALMA, the EELT, etc.). In the current context, that is quite remarkable. 

I arrived in Chile from California with my wife Jessica and our cat Ishi the first of April 2011 (not a joke!) to fill a position of VLT operations staff astronomer on UT4-Yepun, which hosts two adaptively-corrected instruments (NAOS-CONICA and SINFONI) and the wide-field camera HAWK-I, and a Laser Guide Star Facility. As an exoplanet hunter, coronagraphist and adaptive optics/wavefront control aficionado, my medium-term goal at ESO is to ensure a smooth Paranalelization and subsequent operation of SPHERE, VLT second generation extreme adaptive optics system and 3-instrument suite almost entirely dedicated to extra-solar planetary systems imaging and characterization. The challenge is extremely exciting: SPHERE is one of the most ambitious and complex facilities to arrive at the VLT. It is filled out with amazing technologies and has a science case aimed at answering some of the most fundamental questions of human kind!

(*) 2015 update: now back in the US at Caltech/JPL (and happy); in hindsight, that prediction certainly revealed to be true.

© Dimitri Mawet 2017