Finishing Up

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.

Sanity Break

Author’s note: I meant to post this yesterday, but forgot to hit the “publish” button! Oops!

Weather conditions weren’t great on Wednesday either, so we didn’t have the opportunity to observe. On the bright side, the smell of the mountain after it rains has to be one of my new favorites!

Yesterday, we spent the day in Tucson for a “sanity break,” as Dr. Terndrup calls it. I had the opportunity to check out the University of Arizona’s campus and walk through a few shops here and there. The city is full of art and culture; there’s a mural on nearly every wall. I got a picture with a space-related one that I found. It was also nice to eat something that wasn’t made by me on a tiny stove at 2am.

We got back right around sunset and set up both telescopes immediately. I was in charge of the 1.3 meter again, and we both took photometry data all night. I’m not sure if I’ve ever specified what exactly we do when we take photometry data, so I’ll do that now! We’re taking an image of the star we’re observing and those surrounding it. We choose two stars near it that are also rather bright and those become our comparison stars. We measure the brightness of each of the three stars in the image and compare the difference in the brightness between the stars in this image and in the previous images. If the difference is much greater for the target than the average difference of the comparison stars, then we know that the target has actually dimmed, and a cloud hasn’t just rolled over. If the target has dimmed, it is likely an eclipse of the binary system and we can time it!

The humidity was relatively high last night and we had to deal with the consequences. Water droplets began forming on the 2.4 meter telescope, messing with our data collection for a short period. It had looked as if the target was dimming despite it not being time for an eclipse. To fix this, we just had to blow dry nitrogen over it until it dried up.

Today’s plans include: doing laundry. I’m out of shirts. One can only fit so much in a carry-on.

In the Swing of Things

I’m starting to realize that I’m better prepared for this lifestyle than I initially believed. All of the garbage jobs I worked on the way up have ended up helping me in ways I didn’t expect. It hasn’t been difficult for me at all the switch up my sleep schedule because I used to work 3rd shift at a grocery store. The telescope controls have been practically easy to me because they’re so much more intuitive and user-friendly than any cash register I ever used in food service or retail. No matter how much I hated those jobs at the time, I think they helped. Of course, that doesn’t mean I ever wish to return to them. I much prefer this. It’s a bit more intellectually stimulating and nobody ever yells at me!

On Monday, we had control over both the 2.4 and 1.3 meter telescopes. Instead of working separately at the two domes, though, we stayed in the 2.4 meter control room and operated the 1.3 remotely by pulling up the desktop display of the 1.3 control room on two unused monitors in the 2.4. The interface for the 1.3 was similar to the 2.4, but not exactly identical, so I had to learn how to use it properly.  Before long, I was collecting photometry data on the 1.3.

While I was running the smaller telescope, my adviser also showed me how to take spectroscopy data on the 2.4. We were watching the emission lines of a pair of eclipsing binary stars. As an object is moving toward us, it becomes blue-shifted, and as it moves away, it becomes red-shifted. Because the orbital plane of the stars is parallel to our perspective, the stars seem to be alternating movement toward and away from us, and we can watch this happen in their spectra.

It was clear for most of the night, though there were occasional rogue clouds. I took the opportunity to go out and practice my astrophotography. I have to say, I’d forgotten how much I love it! I hope I have time to do more before the observing run is over.

Today, conditions were less favorable. We were confident pretty early on that we wouldn’t have an opportunity to observe. Instead, I spent most of my time catching up on class work – it’s certainly piling up. I took a break to go on a walk and explore the mountain around sunset. The view is absolutely breathtaking. I’m not sure how I’ll go back to Ohio after this.


The First Two Nights

We got to work preparing the telescope at around 5pm on the first night. This included filling the cooling system with liquid nitrogen, uncovering the mirror, and opening up the dome and the shutters.

The first half of the night mostly included me looking over Dr. Terndrup’s shoulder as he handled the telescope. He showed me the basics of focusing and setting up the guiding, then how to take the photometry data we are interested in. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but the process of data collection is rather repetitive, so I got the basics pretty fast. I had a good enough handle on it that by the second half of the night that he could go take naps while I dealt with the telescope.

Unfortunately, some clouds rolled past at the end of the night right before we could get a complete eclipse reading. Fortunately, the star of interest has a very short period, and we’ll have no trouble getting a more complete reading on another night.

We finished with the telescope at around 5am, which was when it finally set in that these would be 12-hour shifts for any clear night this week, so I set off to immediately pass out in bed.

On the second day, there were some storms off to the south. Because there was lightning, we had to go through the process of shutting down both the 1.3 and 2.4 meter telescopes. This was a complicated process that involves reading instructions from a very confusing red binder. Because of the clouds, we had to wait a bit before we could get started observing. In the meantime, I took some photos of the rain from afar. There was even briefly a rainbow!

Once it cleared up, we had to work on getting the telescopes back to normal functioning after the shutdown, which is an equally confusing process. We (well, mostly Dr. Terndrup, but I did point out an icon on the desktop he was missing so… I’d say I did SOMETHING) figured it out eventually, and started back up. I actually did small parts of the setup myself this time, which mostly just filled me with anxiety for half of the night that I might have screwed something up irreparably. Naturally, everything was fine and I was overreacting. As usual.

We took photometry data the same way we did on the first night, and I was left alone for longer stretches of time. I was much more tired than the previous night, and it reminded of me of back when I worked third shift. The second night in a row is always the longest. At one point I took a 30-minute power nap under the stars outside, and I have to say that there’s no better way to wake up than under the Milky Way.

We called it a night at around 6 and, as I did the night before and will for every night this week, I passed out immediately.




We left Ohio yesterday, immediately after class. Our layover in Atlanta was just long enough to get some food before we got on our final flight. As soon as the plane doors opened at Tucson, I felt my lips start to chap. My most distinct memory from my Arizona visit in high school is how it absolutely destroyed my lips, so I did think ahead this time and bring excess amounts of chapstick. Not this time, mother nature.

We stayed in a hotel last night to get our bearings. I was surprised when I woke up naturally at 7am before I realized it was 10am back home. After enjoying the complimentary breakfast buffet, we stopped by a grocery store to stock up before heading up the mountain. Full disclosure: I acquired a truly unhealthy amount of Mountain Dew (maybe that’s actually any amount of Mountain Dew). It’ll be necessary for the first night, switching my sleep schedule to nocturnal.

The drive was absolutely beautiful. I could see the telescopes on the mountain long before we got here. The view is amazing up here. I had to force myself to stop taking pictures so I could squeeze in a power nap before we start up tonight. I’m not sure how effective a two-hour nap will be against staying up all night, but it’s better than nothing.

We’re about to begin the startup procedure for the telescopes. Dr. Terndrup is making coffee and I intend to crack open a pop right after I post this. It’s gonna be a long night.