During the day yesterday, we went on an excursion to the top of the mountain to check out some the other telescopes here on Kitt Peak. We drove up and I realized that the layout of the peak felt familiar to me for some reason, then I realized – it felt like a theme park! There was a wide main path with other, smaller paths curving off it to each of the individual telescopes, like lines to ride on roller coasters. This comparison is probably actually just the result of my brain connecting two of my favorite things, but I stand by it. The shop and telescopes were closed to visitors for the day, so we decided to leave and return the next day. As we were walking back to the car, a bird very helpfully decided to ruin my day. It would be just my luck to get pooped on. I’m including this part of my story partially for the sake of representing the daily life of a scientist authentically, but mostly because I promised Facebook that I would. There it is.
We returned to the telescopes in the evening and set up to do – you guessed it – more photometry. We came to the telescopes with a list of potential targets, but ended up paying the most attention to just one system. The system itself has a rather unique and interesting light curve and a short period (meaning we could map out multiple eclipses over our time here), so it became our focus. I was running the 1.3 meter again. At this point, I felt really comfortable with the controls. I hardly needed any guidance and even managed to get some classwork done while the data was rolling in.
We went back up the mountain today at an earlier time than yesterday. There was more time to walk around and look in the telescopes that were open to the public. I stopped by the gift shop to convince myself that I need yet another astronomy-related t-shirt. We also checked out some historical and artistic installations, many of which were created by and/or featuring the people of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The top 300 ft of the mountain are leased by the National Science Foundation from the Tohono O’odham Nation. That heritage is very deliberately represented in many places around Kitt Peak; it’s visible in the art, the crafts in the gift shop, and the history of cooperation detailed in the visitor center. I’m glad to be working at a site where scientists make the effort to respect and cooperate with the native residents and it’s unfortunate that it isn’t a universal experience.
We were in no hurry to start tonight; there wouldn’t be an eclipse of the system until later in the night. Instead, we stood out behind the 2.4 meter telescope and watched the sky. The International Space Station was passing overhead within an hour of the official autumn equinox! Even though it just appears to be a blip moving across the sky, it’s amazing to think about the fact that there are people aboard looking back down on us.
As we began collecting data, it finally started to set in that this would be my last night here. This really has been an incredible experience. It’s been very reaffirming. There was a time in my life (not too long ago at all – two years ago? one year ago, even?) when I didn’t think I would ever “make it” as an astronomer. I was very worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but look at me now! I spent the whole week handling it! I can barely imagine returning to class tomorrow. Now that I’ve had a taste of life as an astronomer outside of the classroom, I don’t want to go back. I will, of course. I’m going to need a degree eventually if I want to keep doing this. Frankly, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep doing this for the rest of my life.
We leave to catch our flight in five hours, but I’ll be back, Kitt Peak. I promise.