Astronomy Night

time lapse photographs show the abundantly clear viewing from these mountains

time lapse photographs show the abundantly clear viewing from these mountains

I have spent time watching an observer manipulate a telescope remotely and capture the science data necessary for the evening. But nothing prepared me for the sheer thrills of being at summit, with an astronomy team making decisions in the moment about what to watch and where and how. We watched the sun go down and then the work for the evening was started. First, of course, we all wanted to check on the the world’s most famous comet. Although it only showed up as a fuzzy little bright blur, it was still thrilling to think that there it was and mankind landed a spacecraft on it last week.

Next we started in on the specific project for the evening — a spectrographic look at dense galaxy environments. A lot of consideration of what to look at and to what purpose goes into the science at this level. Different masks have to be designed to cut out all the light that might be confusing to the results. The project leader applies to the telescope corporation for a time slot in an optimum viewing window for the specific objects being viewed. The project observing team, consisting of astronomer Julie Nantais, Allison Noble and Ricardo Demarco, have only so many hours for their project and they have to optimize their telescope time as much as possible. There are nights which are clear and perfect and lots can be achieved and then there are nights with clouds which obscure the sky and make observing difficult. Sometimes instruments can ‘go mechanical’ and need help, all while the clock is ticking. In spite of a slight instrument malfunction the night is off to a good start and before 3 AM the project team has everything they need for this evening’s observations.

The areas of responsibility and how everyone works together is like a sort of scientific choreography. The astronomer team — scientists from various universities — has their goals and ideas for the evening. Then the astronomer in charge of the telescope (Mischa Shirmer — first night/Eduardo Marin –second night) takes their directions and sets up the ‘queue’ (the line up of stuff being looked at for the night). This information, in turn, is relayed to the person ‘driving’ the telescope — the operator, who sets up the tons of engineering in the dome and aims it at the correct position in outer space for the specific objects being observed. The operator for the two nights I have been at summit is David Krogsrud.

When the initial findings started coming in they looked like ribbons of aluminum foil with small krinklings. The spectra are a way of mapping the elements making up the object. These mappings can be fitted together with other findings to make a much more complete picture of what is out there and how it behaves.

Having been up for just over 24 hours and also dealing with the effects of altitude means that sleep is now necessary!

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