Monday, August 24, 2015

A radio astronomer goes to Mars... or, Las Campanas Observatories

Coming up the mountain and passing the sign to La Silla seems a bit like traversing to a different planet, so foreign is the landscape around Las Campanas Observatory in the high desert of Chile. Barely do we have enough time to put our suitcases in our rooms before we rush to dinner, which is renowned as some of the best Observatory food around. They did not lie with this boast, the dinner is braised pork with potatoes, beets, and fresh avocado. I’d say this is a new experience for this radio astronomer, but in truth, the food at Owens Valley Radio Observatory is also exceptional. I find Ramesh, the preceding observer to my shift to make arrangements to shadow him. He’s obliging, and so Diane (the undergraduate who is accompanying me on this virgin observing run) and I follow him up the mountain. Sadly, the sky has clouds that night, but we see how to take flats, take calibration spectra, and set up our observations. We thank him and head down early, aware that 1 day from now there will be no heading down early.

The next day, I am nervous. At lunch I plot over and over in my head how the observing schedule needs to be run. What have I missed? Wait, those are empanadas. Many people have told me about the empanadas. And they live up to their expectations. I ask for two for my night lunch. One to savor tonight, and one to savor tomorrow. Diane and I arrive at the telescope just before the sun sets. I run a practice arc lamp observation, and decide to do flats in the morning. Wise move? Depends on if my prediction that my California jet lag is actually beneficial. 7am feeling like 3am seems like it would work to my benefit in terms of night time fatigue.

It becomes clear that my lessons the previous day are not the complete set of instructions I need to run the telescope, but we start. A near-IR expert on Skype with me. Then the earth under our feet starts shaking - the telescope operator knows before we do from the jiggling in the pointing of the telescope. I head toward the heavy desk in case I need to jump under it - yes, it was that big. Magnitude 6.0. Biggest earthquake this Californian has been in, and the Chileans eat 6.0s for breakfast. That is when the internet goes out, having been taken out by the earthquake. So much for my near-IR expert on Skype. No crutches for me - time to dive headfirst into the deep end.

Post-earthquake is also when the GUIs start misbehaving. At first, I think this is due to my own inexperience. The instrument scientist is called up, he comes, and it becomes clear that it is not my ignorance, but likely a cable that got jiggled in congress with the mountain. Instrument scientist and observer go and check it out, “turn it off then back on again,” and we start anew, this time I have an expert making sure that I am running things properly (word to the wise: go up in the afternoon before your run. People might not tell you to, but I am. Seriously. Do that. Don’t be like me.) Things start running smoothly, and we get a rhythm. Diane, having weathered her first (and second!) earthquake runs things like a champ, though we release her from observing a little early since her cough seems to be getting worse, and sleep is the best cure for a cold.

As I write this, it is 4:47am. A half hour ago the moon set and we got to sneak outside during a 15min integration to stare at the stars. I saw the Magellanic clouds, as well as a meteor or two. Dark sites are pretty spectacular things. We are observing the last source of my night right now, working our way to the daylight, when I will observe some twilight flats and then head down the mountain, ready to observe first thing tomorrow evening. The moon is getting fuller, but I am no longer a rookie, having scaled the learning curve without internet and with the earth shaking beneath my feet.

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