Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What instrument are you using (now)? .... And zen observing

I am open to whatever my fate may be this run…. So far, that is a very good mentality to have, since no plans have stayed relevant, or constant, for long.
Months ago, I heard that the instrument I wanted to use, the near-infrared echelle spectrograph FIRE on the Baade telescope, was broken.  However, people said, the principal investigator, or PI, is working on it, maybe it will be available in time, so don’t change your plans.

Earlier this month, I checked in with the PI, who also said, I think it will be fixed, but wait until after our run at the beginning of December and check back.  Lo and behold, FIRE was fixed!  Victory!

As I am getting on my first of three airplane rides down to Chile, psyched for my first Magellan run but stuck with a head cold, I get the email of doom: FIRE is broken!  I should look into other instruments and resubmit an instrument setup.  NO!  Shoot!  

Well, darn.  At the Dallas airport, I download the instrument manuals for IMACS, the all-purpose optical imager and spectrograph, and MagE, the optical echelle spectrograph.  I spend the flights thinking about the capabilities of the two instruments and let my internal debate rage.  Of course, brain power is beginning to hit a local minimum since airplanes are not conducive to sleep.

On the beautiful drive up to the telescope, in between naps, I chat with fellow astronomers about instrument considerations. Of course, since I was planning to observe in the infrared, I have entirely forgotten that it is pretty much full moon; my faint galaxies are going to pretty challenging to observe with all that background light. Shoot.

We arrive in time for a quick nap before dinner, and then I learn - they are trying to fix FIRE!  Maybe not all hope is lost?  But, they also say, there is no guarantee that the instrument will be cool enough to observe, or that the software will start up successfully.  So, my debate is whether to continue planning for optical observations, plan for unlikely infrared observations, or … just zen out and wait. Picking option three is hard, but all my planning has not helped so far. And I am so happy to be at the observatory for the first time, just seeing it and talking with everyone; watching the sunset helps!

My time is during the second half of the night, so the waiting game continues for the entire evening.  The instrument should be cool enough (yay!), but will the software start successfully? Will it break?  

At switchover, FIRE is not working, but with half an hour of restarted servers, traced paths, and general pandemonium… the instrument is running!  VICTORY!!!

I had a great night observing my target as planned (and replanned and replanned and…), and my data looks marvelous.  As astronomers, we like to plan and control everything about our observing runs, but this time it was eye opening to sit back and resolve not to panic.  I will be trying to practice zen observing more in the future. 
Happy New Year from the Baade!  And may all your all-sky cameras contain owls!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

First Time Observing at Magellan

Baade and Clay at sunset

I'm Decker French, a new postdoc at Carnegie Observatories. I was recently observing at Magellan over four nights. This was my first time at Las Campanas and using IMACS and MagE, two instruments on Baade (the telescope on the left above!) which have the ability to get optical wavelength spectroscopy. 

Observing with the Magellan telescopes is traditional or "classical" observing in that the observer still physically goes to the telescope. The upside of this, is that the observer gets to go on a trip to a beautiful and remote mountaintop halfway around the world. The site is gorgeous,

The view of the mountains

and the sunsets are amazing, though you always hope for a boring cloud-less sunset.


The Las Campanas staff also take exceptionally good care of the observers. Observing is stressful, and having a steady supply of good food and comfy accommodations helps.

View from the telescopes of the lodging area and cafeteria

A downside of this mode of observing, is that telescope time is scheduled months in advance. I was observing galaxies, whose starlight properties don't change on month to month timescales, but I also work on tidal disruption events, which vary more rapidly. For people who study supernovae, tidal disruption events, and other "transient" objects, fitting into a classical observing schedule can be difficult.

The Baade control room

For this upcoming year, I've joined a collaboration working on upgrading the Swope telescope (which you may have heard about earlier this year!) for more efficient observations of time varying sources, among other uses.

The Swope, DuPont, and OGLE telescopes down the ridge from Magellan

I hope to be back at Las Campanas soon, but in the meantime, I was fortunate that the weather cooperated, and I have a lot of data to reduce!

Me, waiting for the sun to set in front of the Magellan telescopes

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Being an Ally.

One of our Las Campanas Belles is hurting.
I have been serving as her ally for the past few weeks trying to help her thrive during a grueling Title IX investigation over sexual harassment she has endured. I can't tell you anything about her except that she is a Belle that I believe her and that she is a wonderful and talented individual that deserves the world, but who has suffered in the past and continues to suffer.  My thoughts often wander to her and to what she has faced and to how utterly powerless I feel to help her.

For a long time I have wanted to write a post on the blog, but for various reasons, it always falls low in the queue of everything else that needs to be done -- including taking much-needed breaks from my ever-present laptop! Indeed, there are drafts scattered about my desktop to share my experiences on the mountain -- about working on instruments, making new instruments (!!), talking astronomy at the Obama White House, and the weirdness of realizing how often I am the only Belle on the mountain. The topic of this post -- what it means to be an ally, however, rises to the top of my queue over and over again -- I have to express the topic of this post somewhere and the Belles community seems a like good a place to start.

Being an Astronomy Ally ( is a tough job, but not for the reasons you might think. Hearing the stories of the victims of harassment is painful and their stories stick with you -- swimming out of the chaos of your thoughts in the most unpredictable times. But this I can handle -- it is why I am an Ally. I also am filled with anger. Anger at the harasser, anger at the system that offers so little support to the victims, and anger at the practices in our community that permit so many to suffer in silence for so long. But this I can handle -- it is why I am an Ally.

What I struggle with is how little I can really do. What I struggle with are the feeling of hopeless that overtakes me when I consider this in depth.

All I can offer are my words and my tears and my thoughts and my deepest belief that we can make Astronomy the safe place it should be. I can tell them about my #MeToo story and talk about my own struggle to conquer it. These are not trivial things to give -- it means a lot to validate the experiences of harassment victims with your words and your emotions. It means a lot to carry their story. It means a lot to show them that while it feels like the world is against them, I, at least, am for them. It means a lot to stand for them in all the ways that Allies choose to do.

But what I want to do for this Belle is to stop time and let her have back the moments she has lost to her pain and her fear. What I want to do for this Belle is to disentangle this struggle from her experiences in astronomy and give her back that love of this science. What I want to do for this Belle is tell her that all of this is 100% conquerable and that it will not impact her career goals and her dreams. What I want to do for this Belle is to whisk her forward in time to the safe community we are striving to build.

But I can't do any of that.

Reconciling these strong desires with what I can do is tough. It is the hardest part of being an Ally.

What I can do is listen to stories and learn from them. What I can do is train my students to be allies. What I can do is demonstrate that I can be talked to about difficult situations and that I will listen. What I can do is influence my peers to build supportive environments. What I can do is talk to my superiors about how they can change our community. What I can do is work to be a superior one day that can enable change -- and be the type of superior that can be approached by others to discuss it. What I can do is design safe meetings and teleconferences that are equitable and inclusive, give a voice to the individuals that need it, embrace and enforce good work-life balance among my colleagues, and do my very best to lend my support everywhere that I can. All of these are important things that I do and things that I force myself to double check that I am doing to the best of my ability for all marginalized populations in our community.

But all of these things seem like quiet moves during a time when I honestly feel that the best course of action might to be to burn academia down and start over. I don't really rationally think this thought, but in the irrational frustration of my helpless feelings, it does seem like it would be really satisfying and direct. I told this Belle that and she laughed -- the kind of honest and heartfelt laughter that makes me know that she is on her way to being okay.

So, I have decided to be a little more vocal and try to express all of the things I that I want to do but that I just can't do. I will tweet about the time I spend being an Ally and how important it is to me. I will talk about how the experiences shape me and fortify my resolve that Allies are integral to our community. I will talk about these difficulties in the most anonymous ways possible to gather support for this Belle -- support she may never be able to acknowledge, but support that is so very very meaningful to her struggle. I will show with my words and my actions how much these stories impact our entire community. I will talk about how it is a privilege to not have experienced harassment in any form and one that we all must internalize when we talk about achievement and progress and struggle. I will use this hopelessness I feel as the motivation to keep fighting.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

First trip up the mountain!

Hello! My name is Sarah Hughes and I am currently completing my undergraduate degree in Astrophysics at the University of London. This trip to Las Campanas observatory is my first, but I hope it will be the first of many! I'm so glad that I have the opportunity to share my amazing experience here.

Me standing under the Du Pont Telescope

I was very fortunate to be invited to co-investigate an observation run with Dr. Johanne Teske and Dr. Andrew Mcwilliam, who I worked with as a summer student at Carnegie Institute a couple of years ago.
We were taking images of Trappist 1, the star where many earth like planets have recently been discovered, to see if infrared ground based telescopes can detect their atmospheres.

This run was very much an experiment as we had no idea how good the data would be! Thankfully we seem to have grabbed some really good transit images despite a few technical issues here and there. It's never good when you have a power cut but its something that keeps observers on their toes!

I arrived at the observatory two days before we were due to observe. It meant that I could really explore the site and get an up close glimpse of all the telescopes as well as take in the views :)

View from the Giant Magellan Telescope site

Honestly though, my camera does not do the image justice, but I hope that on any future trips my camera will have improved by then.

I had an amazing time at Las Campanas and hope that in the near future I'll be able to visit again and continue to work on exciting projects!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Transiting Planets at Magellan!

Hello! My name is Erin May, I'm a third year PhD student at the University of Michigan and I'm SO excited to be a part of Las Campanas Belles! 

Me on a previous observing run at LCO
I study exoplanet atmospheres by looking for small changes in light at different wavelengths as the planet crosses in front of its host star. If a planet blocks out more blue light than red light from the star, it means the planet's atmosphere is absorbing the blue light! This tells us about what types of molecules are present in the atmosphere - pretty cool, right?!

One of the "joys" of studying atmospheres is that I have to wait for an interesting planet to cross in front of its star. For the planet I observed last night, this only happens every few days - and is only observable every few weeks! Because of these pesky planets, every time I come to LCO, I only get to stay for one observing night, which means a lot of travel. I'd say the reward is pretty great, though, just look at that view!

My view from outside my room

This run is particularly exciting because it's my first time at the Observatory for empanada Sunday -somehow I've managed to miss it every time I've been here so far. The empanadas definitely lived up to their hype! 

Pardon the photo, I'm by no means a food blogger! 
While the observing conditions were less than ideal this time, there's no such thing as a bad trip to Las Campanas Observatory. I'm looking forward to being back here next month!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Could Go Wrong...Didn't!

My name is Felicity B. Hills. I am a second year physics PhD student at the University of Michigan, and I am brand new to astronomy. This week, I came to Chile for the first time to observe for the first time ever. Luckily, I had a ton of people to help me along the way (shout out to fellow Las Campanas Belles bloggers Katie Morzinski and Alycia Weinberger).

From left to right: CLIO, Dr. Alex Greenbaum, and myself. (The UChicago sweatshirt is from an REU, but I promise I'm wearing a Michigan t-shirt underneath!)
This trip run was not without its drama! On our second night at LCO the wavefront sensor of the AO system failed. We weren't sure if Jared, Laird, and Mauricio and Pato from the day crew (and others) worked incredibly hard to get everything up and running just in time for Alex and I observe our main science target! Katie stayed on the night schedule to be our AO Captain, working with basically no breaks all night.

Seemingly everything was running smoothly until we moved the telescope to our science target and it wasn't there! We franticly looked through catalogs and literature trying to verify the coordinates and proper motion of our target. It started to look hopeless as every resource told us approximately the same thing. That's when TO Hernan swept in and saved the day! He found it! From then on, our observing night went relatively smoothly. This was truly a crash course in observing.