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!

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