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!

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