Observing, Day 2, Part 2

Monday morning, September 28

2:20 PM Eastern time [8:20 AM Hawaii time]

We're nearing the end of a successful night, and I'm finally finding the time to write a bit.

Stepping back to where I left off...

I did manage to sleep a bit, and got up around 12:30 PM to head up to the summit. In the kitchen, I pack a "night lunch" for myself - since we're observing for 8 hours, having some food helps pass the time and keeps me awake. (I also pack a Diet Pepsi for a little caffeine boost during the night.)

Properly fortified, we check the vehicle schedule to see which of the observatory's 4-wheel drive vehicles are available. (Some vehicles are previously scheduled to take people back and forth from HP to Hilo.) Four wheel drive is a necessity, since the road that winds up the 6,000 feet of elevation from HP to the summit is mostly unpaved road. It is regularly maintained, but does get fairly heavy use and can be a bit bumpy. Also, the 4-wheel drive really comes in handy when it starts to snow on the summit....

The drive up in the dark is uneventful, taking about half an hour. Sometimes it's possible to see the glow of the lava flows on Mauna Loa, the active volcano to the south, but not tonight. As we near the summit, we turn off our headlights, driving only by the light of parking lights. Even a tiny bit of extra light could ruin the observations of other astronomers on the summit, so we don't take any chances. We arrive at the summit and take a few minutes to gaze at the stars before heading inside the telescope dome. It's quite spectacular, with the Milky Way stretched across the sky and the Southern Cross hanging above the horizon. The view later won't be as good, since the lack of oxygen reduces the light sensitivity of one's eyes. We enjoy the view for now, then head inside.

Even the short climb up the stairs to the telescope control room leaves me a bit out of breath. At this altitude, each lungful of air has only about half the oxygen that it does at sea level. We leave our lunches in the telescope dome (where the temperature is just above freezing, so no need for a refrigerator) and head inside the (heated) control room.

The control room is probably different from your idea of what using a telescope might be like - it's basically just a room full of computers. Some are specialized computers that run the various scientific instruments on the telescope, but many are for displaying information about the current observations and for processing data once it is obtained. Looking around right now, I count 12 computer monitors, not counting some smaller, specialized displays.

Amy Barger (the first-shift observer) is just finishing up her observations. She tells us that the night went pretty well, and the weather is indeed a little better than last night.

We settle in for a long night's observing. We have already decided which stars to observe and have written computer files that tell the telescope what to do, so we get right to work. The bulk of the observing is fairly uneventful. Since it takes about half an hour for each observation, there's a lot of sitting around and waiting. We pick out a few additional targets to observe at the end of the night, after our main sources have set, and I work some more on the observing proposal for the following semester.

And hours pass....

At about 3:30 AM I happen to notice the time and it occurs to me that all of you are just starting class back in Swarthmore - I hope it went well!

The telescope operators change shifts at 7:30 AM, and the one coming up from HP brings us breakfast! Yum.

One (draft) observing proposal, several e-mails, one night lunch, some web surfing, and lots of observing later, the "night" is almost done. It is now broad daylight, but we're still observing. We can see that the quality of the atmosphere is getting worse (it takes us longer to get the same quality of observations on a given source), but we are still able to get some useful data, so we're trying to squeeze every bit we can out of the night.

Right now we're observing a binary that wasn't in our original proposal, since it's in a different part of the sky. But it's still interesting, partly because so little is known about it. At first, it looks like we've detected it, and I get very excited, thinking about the implications, planets that could be forming right there, right now. But as we continue to observe, collecting more photons, it gradually becomes clear that what looked like a detection at first was just a glitch, and we haven't in fact detected anything. So we still learn something, that there's *not* a massive disk there, but it's a little disappointing nonetheless.

We extend our observing a little past our allotted ending time of 9:30 AM, since it turns out that the "day crew" aren't coming up to do maintenance on the telescope until around 10:00. Since we don't get to come here very often, even an extra half hour's observing is quite welcome.

But finally they arrive, and we pack up to head down the mountain. Before driving down, we walk over to an area behind the JCMT where the Smithsonian Institution is building a new telescope, the Submillimeter Array. I have visions of using it in a few years, and the exciting things it might bring.

The drive down is a little more interesting than the drive up, since we can see the scenery. Toward the top of the mountain, there is no vegetation at all - just red volcanic rock, in some places rising in impressive cinder cones. Looking out over the rest of the island shows only a blanket of clouds covering everything below about 5,000 feet.

5:30 PM Eastern [11:30 AM Hawaii time]

Back at HP, Bob heads off to bed while Gary and I discuss the next observing proposal. We're still wrestling with whether or not it's worth the time to polish up and submit the proposal, and, more fundamentally, how to make it really compelling. Gary jokes about our "scientific method", which in our tired state seems mostly to consist of constructing compelling reasons after the fact to justify getting the observing time that we know, deep down in our hearts in a perhaps very unscientific way, would yield interesting results. We don't come to any great conclusions, and we decide to just sleep on it (after grabbing some lunch first).

Tomorrow night is our last night - if we can get weather as good as we had tonight, we should be able to complete essentially all of our proposed observations. Tune in tomorrow to see what happens,


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Eric Jensen <ejensen1@swarthmore.edu>
Last modified: Sun Jun 8 16:15:13 2003