Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

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200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

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The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

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Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

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The Monastery

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Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

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George Ellery Hale

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Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

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Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

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That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

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Where is home?

Where is home?

This time of year I am often asked “are you going home for Christmas?” and this brings up a good expat-worthy question – not about Christmas, but about “home”. Where is it?

Here’s the situation. I was born on the UK. I grew up mostly in the UK but as an adult I lived in Australia for more than a decade (I also spent 4 years as a child in Australia, so I’ve lived in the UK and Australia for nearly the same number of years). I am a British citizen but I’m also an Australian citizen. My husband is Australian. We got married there.

On the other hand we have lived in the US for nearly four years. We bought a house in Pasadena, CA, where we have lived and worked for nearly two years. You can see there is an array of options for ‘home’.

I’m not the first person to struggle with this question: expat articles are full of people asking the same thing. Here’s just one great example.

And it might be tempting to ask – does it matter? Well, clearly it does to me since I’m writing at 500 word post about it. It matters because, as an expat, it’s comforting to know where home is – were your base, your return point, is located. That’s the whole point of being ‘away’.

My natural reaction to “are you going home for Christmas?” is to think of Bournemouth, UK, as home – I would be going back to the house I grew up in, to my parents and extended family. This is the main contender for ‘home’.

Bournemouth - never gets old

Bournemouth – never gets old

After moving to Australia quite some years ago, I spent nearly five years getting over my homesickness for Bournemouth. But, for whatever reason (living in three different cities in twelve years, always being seen as British because of my accent), I never got deeply attached to Australia. Australia is not my home. Plus, Christmas when it’s 40C outside is just wrong.

That said, I would live in Australia over the UK any day of the week for so many reasons (not all of them having to do with the availability of Cherry Ripes). So, that’s confusing.

Mmmm cherry goodnesss.

Mmmm cherry goodness.

Brisbane circa 2006 - my favourite place in Australia

Brisbane circa 2006 – my favourite place in Australia

As it turns out, I have decided that Pasadena, right now, is home. It’s where my husband and I, as a family live. It’s strange but even though we have no plans to leave, I already miss living here. A lot.

And in some ways, treating this as home is strange – we are in immigration limbo right now, legal only for the length of the stamp in our passport (less than a year right now). And if everything went wrong with some disaster in LA, we’d be on the first plane out.

It’s also strange because by definition an expat shouldn’t really be living in the place they call home. But having thought about this regularly since we moved to the US, I have concluded that while I’m definitely still an expat (I’m not FROM here – and that’s a whole another blog post – because the answer to that question anyone’s guess), I have been away for so long that I don’t feel bound to any one place.

Can't go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.

Pasadena: I don’t think you can go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.

And this brings me to a conversation we recently had with the couple who saved us from going crazy when we first moved to the US. She is English, he is Canadian. We got to know them when we all lived in Cambridge, MA. Recently we went to their wedding in England and a few weeks ago we caught up with them in San Francisco as they passed through for a conference on the way back from their honeymoon in Argentina. (Are you following?) After contemplating the circumstances that brought us together for that weekend in San Francisco, we decided that the best way to describe expats like us is that we have “international lives” – the world is where we live and we intersect with our extended friends and family wherever we can.

The obvious place to go for dinner...

The obvious place to go for dinner…

With that in mind, we cannot predict when our international lives will take us to our next destination, so perhaps while we live almost exactly half way between Australia and Europe, a better question for next year might be, “are you coming to our home for Christmas?”

See you then?

Question – is home where you live? Are you going home for Christmas?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s our third Thanksgiving since moving to US and I think we hit the traditional high points this year: I ran a Turkey Trot in the morning, then we baked (made chestnut stuffing and made the Christmas Cake), and then we went round to a friend’s place for a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast.

Turkey Trot

I was up at 6am to get the train to Downtown LA for the Turkey Trot 5k.  I met a colleague from work (who I’m sure wouldn’t want to be named) and we did the obligatory photos and had a walk about. It was cold COLD cold (for LA).

We set off at 8am from outside City Hall and were immediately faced with two significant hills. The second (which was actually part of the first hill, just further up) was almost one to walk, but since we’d only done about 0.5 miles I wasn’t going to give in.  Luckily after about a mile it was downhill for a good amount of time.  Then after the turnaround at 8th Street it was a long gentle (brutal) uphill to the finish line.  It was especially discouraging to note my Garmin registered 3 miles we were still about 5 minutes from the finish line. Sure enough, according to me the course was an extra 0.3 miles long – which doesn’t sound like a lot, but after 3.1 miles it made a difference!

The good news was I finished 17th in my division – my best result since I restarted running in 2012.

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Baking

Having realized that it was the end of November and the Christmas Cake still hadn’t been made, I put it together when I got back from the run.  Happily my mother-in-law is in town and was able to give it a stir (as per tradition), but the bad news is that I only soaked the fruit in brandy for 12 hours, instead of the usual 24, so I think the cake has come out a bit dry.

We also made chestnut stuffing (as per my grandfather’s mother’s recipe) to take to dinner.  This dish calls for peeling a pound of hot chestnuts, but luckily my husband was on hand for this unpleasant task.  The stuffing came out great.

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Christmas Cake on the left, chestnut stuffing on the right

Feast & Thanks

In the late afternoon we went to friend’s house for a Thanksgiving party/dinner.  We had the opportunity to meet lots of new people, and catch up with others we had met at Christmas at the same house.  We had an amazing meal, and the host gave an inspiring speech.  She noted that the group of guests was diverse in many ways, and especially in national origin, and gave thanks for that and said, “let diversity define us, but also let it unite us.”

It was a fantastic day, and when we are recovered from all the food we are seriously contemplating tackling Black Friday shopping!

Menu: all homemade dishes

So much amazing food

Yes, I did eat all that. And dessert.

Yes, I did eat all that. And dessert.

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Owens Valley Astrophotography Adventure

Owens Valley Astrophotography Adventure

Our February adventure had an astronomical theme – we went to Owens Valley, California.   The husband had been here many times thanks to his work on the LEDA project but this was my first time – and the first time his visit didn’t require a transcontinental flight followed by a 5 hour drive.

We picked President’s Day weekend and set off at a civilized 10am.  Our first stop was still in Pasadena – at Samy’s Camera Shop. This is a fabulous store packed with absolutely everything you could possibly want as a photographer.  As someone who grew up in a house with a darkroom, it was strangely fun to see boxes of photographic paper on the shelf.  We picked up a roll of 200ASA film and got the nice man to load it into my Nikon FE. I also packed my camera clamp which I would use instead of a tripod.

We set off up the 210 North and turned off at the nasty 5/210 junction along the 14 then the 395 towards Bishop, CA.  Along the way we stopped at Lancaster and spotted a donut shop in an otherwise sketchy looking shopping center.  Sugary Donuts turned out to be an excellent find.

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Back on the road we found ourselves leaving civilization and heading into the mountains.  Near the turn off to the 136 we spied a Visitor Center (the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center) so we stopped to stock up on maps and eat our donuts.

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Just before we arrived in Bishop we turned up the 168 towards Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. We had been given a key to the LEDA facility (a tricked out shipping container) so my husband was able to show me all the work he had done for the two years we were in Boston.

The LEDA telescope is an array of 251 antennas like the ones below, arranged over a wide area, with another 5 different type of antenna spaced around the edges.  These antennas work together to produce a picture of the sky – but not a normal picture – one taken with radio waves.  The scientists are hoping to ‘see’ what the universe looked like soon after the first stars turned on after the Big Bang.  Their ‘first light’ image is here: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/LEDA/firstlight.html.

LEDA

LEDA

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Other telescopes on the site

After all this excitement we headed to our hotel in Bishop (Creekside Innmy review here).

Once it was fully dark we got back in the car and headed back to the Observatory.  After only a mild amount of swearing and dropping parts in the sand we hooked up the camera to its clamp, and clamped the clamp to a handy fence post. We opened the shutter and waited. It was at this point we realized it wasn’t exactly warm outside…

I pointed the camera at Orion/Taurus/Pleiades wide field.  Then I pointed it at the North Star.  Then we switched locations and got some foreground telescope action happening.  Exposures were all less than 10 minutes (we didn’t time it). [Later, I got the film developed and scanned at Samy’s, then rinsed the images through Photoshop on ‘auto correct’].

Orion/Taurus/Pleiades

Orion/Taurus/Pleiades

Pointing at the North Star

Pointing at the North Star

Pointing north-ish

Pointing north-ish

The next day we drove up towards the Bristlecone Pine Forest.  We drove up from 4000ft to something like 8000ft, saw a bit of snow on the road, and caught glimpses of some spectacular views.  The vista at the top was breathtaking and the car smelled hot. Along the way I used up the last few frames of the roll of film, and found it interesting to compare the same shot taken with the digital camera and the film camera.

On our way home we tried to get lunch at the Copper Top BBQ place (somewhere my husband and his colleagues ‘discovered’ when it first opened a couple of years ago) – but the line was more than an hour long…

For those interested, here is a recent article about Owens Valley and its dust issue: http://www.latimes.com/science/la-me-1115-owens-20141115-story.html

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Question: When was the last time you got a roll of film developed?

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Overnight at Long Beach

Over the MLK weekend we decided to spend a one day/one night in Long Beach.

It’s only an hour’s drive from Pasadena and we arrived at the Courtyard Marriott just in time for lunch.  We were welcomed like royalty (thanks to our awesome status gained after spending 2 months living at the Residence Inn) and were directed to Pier 76 for lunch where we shared some amazing fish tacos and homemade strawberry lemonade.

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Having been told it was “impossible” to walk to the Queen Mary from town we sought the free Passport bus to take us there (we didn’t particularly want to pay $15 to park).  We then stood in the slowest queue in the known universe to buy entrance tickets. We got the audio tour and entrance to the Diana Exhibit – perhaps a bit ambitious given it was already 2pm.

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We collected the audio tour and began a two hour battle to follow the stupid directions to different places on the ship – seemingly at random.  While the 2 minutes of information per stop was interesting, the miles of walking and ages spent looking for the tiny audio tour signs were not.

But we did learn a few things like ….  The wooden floors are the original (and the smell of them cooking in the sun reminded me of school).  The amazingly long corridors in the lower decks are bowed with the shape of the ship. From the bridge the captain couldn’t actually see where he was going – they relied on tug boats to take them into port.  The awesome propellers were so finely balanced it was possible to turn them with finger pressure.

 

The main thing we learned, however, was that the foghorn was loud.  Like, the world is ending LOUD.  We happened to be at the closest possible point to the horn when it went off and nearly had a heart attack.  Soon after we found the tiniest sign telling us the regular times.  After I noted this in my TripAdvisor review I was informed:

We have the horn information posted on our website and on signage throughout the ship. Its [sic] clock work, we do apologize for the inconvenience.

After about 5 minutes of googling I found this tiny paragraph:

And don’t miss the Queen Mary horn, proudly blowing every day at 10AM, 3PM & 6PM. The Voice of the Queen Mary can be heard ten miles away!

Awesome.

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Beware!

Beware!

Anyway, after this we headed into the Diana exhibit which I found quite nostalgic – probably not the effect they were going for.  Quite a lot of the exhibit consisted of royal ‘tat’ – stuff I would expect to pick up in a tourist shop in the UK but some of it was good – letters, clothes, old newspapers etc.

After we’d had our fill we caught the bus back to the hotel and watched some of the Australian Open.  Later we went out to dinner at Wokcano.

Next morning we were up bright and early to try to find the beach.  Once again we decided to walk it, and were nearly foiled by roadworks and lack of footpaths.

When the sidewalk disappears...

When the sidewalk disappears…

We eventually made it to the beach and found it to be… wide.  Happily there was a concrete path running right down the middle of it, so we took advantage until we hit more roadworks (beachworks?).  We walked back along the shoreline and couldn’t help but notice the oil on the sand.  Probably something to do with the massive dock yard right next door? I was later assured that further along, closer to the pier the beach is much better.

Finally we headed back to town and to Creme de la Crepe for breakfast before heading home.  This is meant to be the first of our twelve local holidays for the year.  Stay tuned for next month’s adventure – with any luck we’ll be going to Owens Valley.

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Question:  Have you ever been blasted by a foghorn at close range? 

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