Posted in astronomy, Travel

Very Large Array: New Mexico

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Back in January this year, my husband, Jonathon, and I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, so that he could give a talk at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). This was a new state for me, so I was keen to see what it had to offer.

We flew into Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon and picked up a car. It was already  late when we arrived so we didn’t hang about and drove south to Socorro, about an hour away.

Jonathon had been talking up the food at Socorro Springs, and it didn’t disappoint. We refueled on pizza and beer then headed to the NRAO guest house on campus via Walmart for some supplies for breakfast.

The guest house was perfect: spartan but comfortable, and very quiet.

Next morning it was cold and grey outside. I stayed in the guest house, working, while husband gave his colloquium.

In due course it was time for lunch and I met everyone at Frank & Lupe’s El Sombrero. It was serving authentic New Mexican food, and I found the menu a little opaque! To save time, someone ordered for me and I found myself eating something delicious and full of chillies.

That afternoon we were given a tour of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) correlator. I know this already sounds boring, but bear with me. The VLBA is a global network of giant radio dishes which collect signals from space from telescopes around the world. The correlator is the important bit of computer kit which takes all the signals and smushes them together to make one coherent signal. Amazingly, data from telescopes all over the world are mailed here on tape drives and correlated using the computers in this building on the UNM campus. The scientific results are spectacular (e.g. “Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes“).

Once we had finished in the correlator room, our host, Frank Schinzel offered to drive us down to see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), about an hour east of Socorro.

So along we drove, through terrain that was desert-y but somewhat green, hilly but not mountainous, until we reached a huge plain and saw our first VLA dish (technically, antenna). Each is 25 meters in diameter and steeply curved.

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Very Large Array (VLA) antenna

Because we were with Frank we were lucky enough to get the VIP tour – the first stage of which is to get very up close and personal to one of the antennas. Periodically each of the 27 antennas goes into “the barn” for maintenance.

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We climbed up the outer staircase and went through painted white doors, stepping over ledges and hard pieces of metal, before scaling a ladder to emerge through a hatch into the bowl of the antenna.

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We were instructed not to step in the middle of the panels, but keep to the joints. Standing  more than a view feet up from the center of the bowl was nearly impossible and our perspectives were skewed by all the white around us.

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Next stop on the tour was the site of the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a project my husband worked on while we were in Boston. It consists of a bunch of funny looking antenna in the field and a trailer full of computer bits which is the loudest place in the world.

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Long Wavelength Array

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Frank stepped into the trailer to do some tinkering and we tried not to become submerged in the cold mud layer beneath our feet. The sunset was magnificent as we left the LWA for a quick stop at the small but impressive visitors center.

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As it was already late, Frank drove us back to Socorro in time for drinks and dinner and conversations with more people from the university. We were well and truly ready for bed that evening!

The next morning we had a few hours to spare before heading to Albuquerque airport, so we decided to go for a “hike” (walk) in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This, coincidentally, holds another array that is part of the LWA.

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Another LWA station – white patch in center of image

We had a look in the excellent visitor center, complete with stuffed animal nature displays, then got a map from the guides then headed off on the hike.

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The rain in the distance was a little worrying but it didn’t approach. The fresh air and the calmness was a welcome relief. Though we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of, we appreciated the geological formations, including a fault line!

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The scenery on the drive back to the airport was spectacular, with snow capped mountains and puffy clouds.

I’m happy to check off another telescope from my list! Hope we’ll be back one day.

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Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

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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Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles, Travel

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.

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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’].

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Orion/Taurus/Pleiades
Pointing at the North Star
Pointing at the North Star
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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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Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Observing night at Mt Wilson

Last week we were treated to a fabulous evening at Mt Wilson Observatory.  Michael Long invited us to join a group of JPL interns and LACC students on an observing session on the famous 60-inch telescope.

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We left Pasadena at 5.35pm and we met Mike and the others at the gate in plenty of time before the 6.30pm kick-off.

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Once everyone had arrived we drove in convoy through the gates.  It was only a short drive along narrow one-way roads before we arrived outside the domes.

The evening formally began with a tour of the ‘most famous telescope in history’ – the 100-inch.  This frankly massive telescope was used by Hubble to discover that the universe is expanding, and that there are many different types and shapes of galaxies outside of our own.  Let’s not forget these discoveries were made in an era where it was commonly believed the Milky Way was the entire universe.

We all spent far too long on the catwalk taking photos and admiring the sunset and soon it was time to head over to the 60-inch.

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Mike warned us as we were walking not to wander off too far in the dark.  Hazards include mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bears, as well as steep drop-offs.

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The program observer for the night was Nick, a very knowledgeable man who told us he’d been doing these tours for over a decade.  When we arrived on the observing platform he already had Mars lined up.  We were given another safety briefing, warning us about the 150V DC lines running around the edge of the dome (protected of course) and the truck wheels that move the dome.  Interacting with either of these would not be a good plan.  We were advised to stay in front of the semicircle of chairs and all would be well.  Keeping out of the way of the telescope when it was being slewed was also a requirement, since ‘the telescope won’t even care as it knocks you over’.

Nick showed us how to look through the telescope. The eyepiece was on the Cassegrain focus, and we would often need to use a big stepladder to get to it.  We were free to step on any blue-colored part of the telescope, and to focus the eyepiece to suit ourselves.  We were asked not to press any of the inviting red backlit buttons near the eyepiece though.

So, to Mars! We lined up and took turns to climb the ladder to the eyepiece.  Mars was a smallish fuzzy red blob and I imagined I could see a faintly darker section of the disk.  I also imagined that it wasn’t a completely round.  Checking this website later and it looks like I was right – it did have a slight phase on it!

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Then, as Mars began to set, Nick quickly shifted the telescope to Saturn. This was easily the most spectacular object of the whole night (when isn’t it?). Everyone uttered ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they saw it.  It was yellow and featureless, and we could see the amazing rings.  Viewing with slightly averted vision revealed the Cassini division in the rings.   I could also clearly see four of the moons. I tried to take a photo with my phone but it was quite hard to line up the camera with the pupil!

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At this point the temperature in the dome started to drop noticeably and complimentary hot chocolate was very tempting. The skies darkened as people went back for a second look at Saturn.  This was nearly the last picture of the night for me as my camera battery died and my phone wasn’t up to the job.

The next object we saw was M13, a globular cluster.  It seemed small compared to the more familiar-to-me southern hemisphere Omega Cen, but individual stars were clearly visible.  Then, the Cat’s Eye nebula was lined up by Nick.  This is a planetary nebula – a dying star surrounded by shells of it’s own blown-off gas.  Spectacular.

We saw Epsilon Lyrae next, known as the ‘double double’.  Four stars in total, two sets of two.  It seemed that the two stars that made up each binary were equally separated. Very nice indeed.

As Nick moved the telescope in an orderly way across the sky our next object was M57 – the Ring Nebula.  This is a similar object to the Cats Eye nebula but much fuzzier. There was no obvious central star.

Alberio, another double star swiftly followed. This pair of stars is a wider binary than each of those of the double-double.  One was clearly white, and the other clearly yellow.

The last object for us of the night was Campbell’s hydrogen star – a Wolf Rayet star.  This was another fuzzy one, but very small, even with the magnification boosted from 300x to 500x.  We could just make out a faint red tinge to the glow.

And then it was time for us to leave – it was only 11pm but one of us had work the next day!  The JPLers and LACCers had the telescope until 1am and I’m sure they saw many more fabulous objects.

I would highly recommend an observing night at Mt Wilson.  While the price may seem steep, once it’s divided by 10-15 people, it’s excellent value for money.  Not only do you get to look through a telescope that was once the largest in the world, and was used to make unprecedented discoveries about the universe, you get a spectacular view of Los Angeles on the drive back down the mountain!

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For more information, here’s the Mt Wilson Observatory website: http://www.mtwilson.edu/