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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Observing over Christmas and New Years

What have you been doing on Christmas eve ?

I was observing with the du Pont telescope looking at other galaxies and supernovae.

And Christmas day ?
I was sleeping preparing to observe the night of the 25th as well.

Normally the observatories at las Campanas in Chile are officially closed on the 24th and 25th of December. My run also only started on the 26th. However there is an exception. As a telescope operator you can ask for time during these normally festive days. And that is what Nidia did. She is one of the operators of the du Pont telescope and very dedicated to research and observing. Usually, when one obtains time to observe at this telescope, one is accompanied by an operator during the run. On the 24th and 25th however, Nidia would have been observer and operator at the same time.

Since it is always good to arrive one (or two) days before a run (just to adapt more smoothly to the night schedule), I thought it was a good idea to accompany Nidia on her Christmas run. Plus, it is of course nicer to have some company to keep each other awake. Plus: Nidia is like the Einstein of operating this telescope. If you can learn from her, you will know all the little tricks that will allow you to observe in the best and most efficient and accurate way possible. For example, for small offsets, instead of calculating offsets for the telescope and moving the telescope itself, Nidia would calculate the offset that would have been applied to the guider camera and move that one instead. This technique resulted in a significantly better precision in tuning fine offsets. So afterwards, I applied this trick during our observations - to the surprise of my colleagues who had observed many times at the du Pont and did not know about this clever technique by Nidia.

During these festive days, the observatory is also decorated beautifully in Christmas style (see photos). The residency has a big Christmas tree and even in the observing control room, one can find a mini version of such a tree. All in contrast to the dry desert without *any* trees outside, enjoying long summer days (we are in the Southern hemisphere of course). At Christmas, really only two of the probably 30 tables inside the residency are filled with people. A very tiny group. But very cosy. The observatory also makes an effort to serve special dinners during these days. So after a nice meal, Nidia and I head off to the du Pont and observed during beautiful conditions (at least on the 24th). The 25th prepared strong winds. So, even when the sky is clear, no clouds or rain, one cannot observe if the wind is stronger than about 35mph. Once it passes this threshold consistently, the telescope dome has to be closed. After, the wind has to drop below this mark at least for half an hour to reopen. And unfortunately this was not the case on the 25th. But never mind, we still had a good time.

The residence before Christmas.

A little Christmas tree in the operating room in the du Pont telescope.

And New Years?
Observing!:) This is in fact a special day, but it is an official observing day, so the telescopes are not closed like on Christmas. Nevertheless, we also received a special meal. This time, there were obviously a few more people, so the table in the residency got extended (but the Christmas decoration remained) - see photos. The rest was pretty much the same. - well, more or less. I had a friend from Spain to come visit me that night and so we could do the Spanish New Years tradition: together with our operator, we ate 12 grapes at each bell at midnight, making wishes for the new year. However where are the bells in Las Campanas? Funnily enough, the name “Las Campanas” means the bells. This originates due to a certain type of rocks that can be found on that mountain. These rocks produce a very nice ‘bell-sound’ when gently hit against each other. So due to the lack of real bells, we prepared some rocks, recorded the sounds and played them at midnight…. one might go a little crazy after 1-2 weeks of night time observations in a remote place in the Atacama desert….but it was so much fun!

The long table ready for the New Year's dinner.

Happy New Year!

….and here is a little time-lapse that I took during this run (so parts of the sunrise are really the first sunrise in 2017! and others are stars in the night sky at Christmas - not that this matters, but still) I hope you enjoy it!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Internships and Mentors

I'm back observing with Magellan II at Las Campanas Observatory, this time with the Planet Finder Spectrograph, which I've blogged about here before. I came straight to LCO from the 229th American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Dallas, TX, where I was reminded of how overwhelming yet thrilling these huge astronomical gatherings are. It took me back to my times attending as an undergraduate student; many summer internship programs, including the one newly started at Carnegie Observatories and one I just learned about for Argentinian students at Las Campanas, provide students with funding to attend the winter AAS. Attending the meeting and presenting a poster was, for me, an eye-opening and very exciting experience, a window into the world of professional astronomy. It is the culmination of a summer, and sometimes fall semester, of authentic astronomy research that is really the best way for students to decide whether they want to pursue a career in astronomy or astrophysics after college. Such research internships are often the start of strong friendships with other interns, and can also be the start of the incredibly important mentoring relationships that carry students (at least, they carried and continue to carry me) through their careers.  To those hosting students this summer, think back to how formative this experience was for you in your career, and about how you can make this summer the best it can be for your student(s). For those applying, my advice is to take advantage of the opportunity to work on something you haven't before, and soak up all the knowledge from your fellow interns that you can. I learned just as much, if not more, from my intern buddies during my REUs, especially about the practice of astronomy (versus the content knowledge).

Maria Mitchell Observatory summer interns (I'm down in front), and my research mentor Jackie Milingo, at Kitt Peak Observatory during the summer of 2006. I worked with Jackie studying chemical abundances measured in planetary nebulae.

 Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory summer interns with program coordinators outside
Phillips Auditorium at Harvard in the summer of 2007. That summer I measured different types of emissions (optical, IR, X-Ray) in merging galaxies to better understand what controlled star-formation and AGN activity. 

At the AAS meeting, I was pleasantly surprised to run into one of my mentors, Michelle Edwards, whom I met in graduate school at the University of Arizona where she is a Support Astronomer for the Large Binocular Telescope. Michelle and I didn't work directly together very much, but she was the person who turned me on to instrumentation, and cheered me on during the last few years of graduate school when I was struggling. It was from Michelle that I realized working at an observatory was a career option, one that I very much still consider as a possible path. Michelle and I are still close, and when I saw here across the large poster hall at the AAS meeting, I yelled out her name and ran over to give her a big hug. Although I'm no longer a student, I still go to Michelle for advice and support, and now I feel like I can support her, too. Mentors aren't always you're friends, but I have been lucky enough to become friends with most of mine. 

Michelle (right) and me at the AAS meeting.

The person who has mentored me the longest is Alycia Weinberger, who has written blog posts here before. I started working with Alycia during my senior year of college for my honors thesis, reducing and analyzing spectra from the MIKE instrument (which I use now in my postdoc!) of young stars with disks of gas and dust around them that we think are the sites of planet formation. Working with Alycia was an experience that kept me going through graduate school -- I thought if I could only make it through and get back to DTM, it would all be worth it. Lucky for me, I got the chance to go back for my postdoc, during which Alycia has continued to be a great mentor and also grown into a great friend. And now we're collaborating again on a few observing projects!

Alycia's advice comes from years of being successful in astronomy, pushing the fields of young stars and planet formation forward with new observations and observational techniques, and also from years of mentoring other young women like me. In fact, while interning at Carnegie DTM, I also met Mercedes Lopez-Morales, whom I went observing with right after graduating college on my first trip to Magellan and who has also been mentored by Alycia. Mercedes is now at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard, and our work overlaps -- we are both using radial velocity spectrographs to measure the masses of transiting planets! Mercedes has become a mentor to me, too, guiding me through the many twists and turns in the field of exoplanets, offering advice about science projects and career choices, and, like Alycia, serving as a role model who balances an amazing career with mentoring students and having a family. 

Current DTM staff members Alan Boss and Alycia Weinberger (second from right), with former and current DTM postdocs Evgenya Shkolnik (second from left), Jackie Faherty (third from left), and Mercedes Lopez-Morales (first on right). This was taken at a recent Giant Magellan Telescope science meeting in Asilomar, California.

You may be noticing a pattern...almost all of my mentors and advisors have been women! This was also the case during my PhD, where I had two co-advisors, both of whom were women. I honestly have not tried to do this on purpose, but I haven't avoided it either. Sometimes I wonder what this means about my personality and work style...but I am constantly thankful for the compassion, patience, and guidance these women have shown me.

My graduate thesis committee and me, after I successfully defended. Katia Cunha and Caitlin Griffith were my two co-advisors, and I still work closely with Katia today. She is visiting next month and I'm very excited to see her again!

In science, like in the rest of the society, women are still not on equal footingI think any close mentoring relationship is important, and some of my best mentors right now are men who have taught me a lot and are incredibly supportive of my ideas (even when I make mistakes). But I have found that those relationships I have with fellow women are enhanced by our shared experience of needing to work a little harder, speak a little louder, and have the confidence to stand up for ourselves, even when we're the only woman in the room. I have these mentoring relationships with women to thank for where I am today, and wherever I end up in the future (and I really haven't done them justice here, apologies!). They saw/see something in me that I did/do not see myself.

Have you had particularly influential mentors in your career? What about pivotal internship experiences? Share them in replies to this post!   

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Remembering Vera

On December 25, 2016, the great astronomer Vera Rubin passed away, surrounded by her family. Vera helped discover the still-mysterious presence of dark matter in the universe in the 1970s, when the largest telescope in the world was about 5m in diameter (now we are working to build telescopes five to six times that size). Her creativity and persistence and ingenuity advanced astronomy into a new age of exploration and trying to understand the history of everything. At the same time she demonstrated the amazing potential and the necessity of women participating in science. Vera was a vocal proponent of equity for women in science, for women's rights in larger society, and a mentor and inspiration to many, many women scientists at all career stages. You can read more about her life and her work here and here (both in her own words), here, here, here, and here.

Frustratingly and sadly, Vera has not and will not be awarded a Nobel Prize for her ground-breaking and trail-blazing work. But we should remember her for the awesome scientist and person she was, Nobel or not, and can honor her by continuing to share memories and stories of her life and work. We started an open document for those who knew Vera, who drew courage and strength from her resilience, who were deeply touched by her compassion and humanity can share their memories of her. This is also a window into the day-to-day difference she made, for those who did not have the privilege of knowing her.

Thank you, Vera.

Vera Rubin in 2010. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bring Your Mom to Work Day(s)

Every since I started observing at Las Campanas, I've talked to my mom about how amazing it is -- the views, the facilities, the people, the food. She loves hearing about my adventures and seeing pictures, and closely follows Yuri Beletsky (whose pictures surpass mine by far). She also has a deep appreciation for nature and how awesome the universe is. Thus it was my great pleasure to treat her to a trip to Las Campanas! I'm here for a two-night MIKE run to observe stars that host cool Jupiter exoplanets. I'm working with Jonathan Fortney and Daniel Thorngren to understand how the composition of these stars may be related to the heavy element mass locked up in their gas giant planets. You can read more about the project in Daniel's paper.

What this post is mostly about is Las Campanas from my mom's perspective. Here is our mini interview:

1. What brings you to Las Campanas?
First and foremost, to spend time with my daughter, Johanna, watching her work. Secondly, to see the night sky. I have seen pictures, but I wanted to see the night sky and stars with my own eyes. And the empanadas. Cannot forget the empanadas! 

2. How was your travel to the telescopes?
The travel was long! I traveled from Harrisburg, PA. Johanna and I had adventures flying from Miami to La Serena, sleeping in little pods on the plane. But the drive up to the telescopes was amazing- the road kept getting steeper and steeper until there was no more road. We reached the top of the earth! I kept thinking about all of the amazing people who build these telescopes and how challenging their journey must have been.

Johanna and Diane/mom in sleeping pods on the plane to Santiago.

 3. What were you most looking forward to? Has that happened?
I was most looking forward to seeing the Milky Way. We saw it last night and it was amazing. Dizzying, in fact! A lifetime event for me. And watching the sunset was unlike anything I have ever seen. Ribbons of reds and oranges with no cloud interference. And SO MANY STARS! I will never forget that night sky. Lastly, hearing about Johanna's adventures so far and her ideas about her future. She inspires me!

4. Has anything surprised you so far?
The temperature has surprised me -- I expected it to be cooler during the day, but it is actually quite pleasant. Another thing that surprised me is how astronomers "share" data and "time" with each other. Johanna is actually using some of her time tonight to "pay back" a colleague who got some observations for her earlier in the year. It is a concept that is not common across other sciences -- folks
can be territorial about their data. 

5. What have you done at the Observatory so far?
We took a nice long walk this morning and I got to see all of the telescopes. I heard a bit about the history behind each one, which I enjoyed. I also saw some new flora and fauna, which is always of interest to me. I also have enjoyed the meals at Las Campanas and was happy to be here for Empanada Sunday! I am looking forward to seeing Johanna in action tonight as she observes. But the night sky and time with my daughter are the highlights so far.

Clay Telescope, with Johanna for scale

6. How would you describe Las Campanas Observatory to other people? What does astronomical observing look like (to someone who does not do it for a living)?
It is not what I thought it would be like. There is a lot of sitting at computers doing compter-y stuff. But last night, I was witness to some exciting science happen. One of Johanna's colleagues found some important stuff for his research, and while I was not clear on what it was, there was an excitement in the room that was palpable. I also am now aware that the observing runs are just PART of the work. For example, I am spending the afternoon with my daughter as she "calibrates" the instrument she will be using tonight. Then she does the observations, then the analysis, then the writing of the paper. I am learning that astronomical observing is just part of a larger process.

7. Any tips for first-timers?
Ask lots of questions, drink lots of water, rest after walking uphill, take lots of pictures. And look up at the night sky every chance you get. The excitement starts after sun down! 

Viscacha at sunset!

Sunset on our first night. Can you spot Venus?

8. Anything else you'd like to share?
My gratitude for the staff and scientists who allowed me to come and be a part of this awesome experience. 

Chef Hector treats us so well!