Friday, 5 February 2010

A gentle evening stroll at 14,000 feet

One of my duties as an astronomer working at an observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawai`i, is to give support to visiting astronomers from around the world who use the telescope. In the last three or four years we've moved into a survey mode which has changed this role quite significantly. In the old days, astronomers would prepare their observations a few weeks before visiting, perhaps even a couple of days beforehand when they arrived on the island, and we'd help with the preparations using our knowledge and experience of the instrumentation and telescope. We'd then accompany them to the summit, help them observe for a night and then provide help and support remotely by telephone and email for the rest of the run. Often, we'd help with the data reduction after the run and sometimes even the analysis and on occasion get so involved in their project we'd end up as a co-author on the resulting publication.

These days the observations are planned and the relevant scripts are written months ahead, often automatically, by the survey team and the astronomers that come out to do the observations more often than not are there to observe something they have not prepared themselves. After the observing run, the data are reduced automatically and sent to an archive where more automation creates catalogues and reduced data.

It's a much easier job these days, I can tell you! On the other hand, I miss the old days. It was far more satisfying to work with an astronomer or a team to get everything out of the instrumentation and telescope that they needed. It was a lot more work but always pleasurable.

Then again, I often support survey observing runs with the most interesting people, and Friday night was no exception. It was one of the most pleasurable nights I've spent on the summit in quite some time! I'd only met the observer once before, just a few months ago when I took a tour party to the summit. That's strange enough because 1) we both used the same instrument at the UKIRT to obtain the data for our PhDs, 2) he was, in the past, a regular visitor to the summit to use the instrument I was responsible for and 3) we both got into the career at around the same time in the UK and we both have the same colleagues and friends. We just never happened to meet.

So on Friday night I was up on the summit with him and we had the most enjoyable chat; reminiscing about old times, current events and the future. Just before sunset, as the dome is cooling and there isn't much to do until the sky is dark enough to start observing, we took a gentle stroll around the summit while chatting about all sorts of things.

We walked up the summit road to watch the shadow of Mauna Kea and it was one of the clearest I'd seen. Because I knew I'd be busy around sunset I didn't bother to take a tripod with me, no time for spectacular photos on this evening (and the sky was clear which is great for astronomy but not so good for photography) so just took the odd handheld shot of the scene plus a few photos for our visitor's children.

As we wandered slowly back to the telescope I looked back and one or two tourists were clearly interested in what we were looking at. The bright orange-jacketed one was taking a picture of the true summit to the right while the person to the left was admiring the shadow of the mountain and of course the earth's shadow on either side.

We strolled down a little further and had a chat with one of the Mauna Kea rangers. He knew we were astronomers rather than tourists, I guess because we weren't wearing fluorescent coats or chatting excitedly about the views. We stopped and had a discussion about UKIRT and its future. The ranger knew more than I realised although not quite as much as me, so the exchange of views and opinions was very interesting! They are good guys these rangers...

It was getting close to sunset as we got back to UKIRT so we visited my favourite photo spot to watch the sun sink into the distant clouds above the Pacific. No green flash again. I think I'm destined never to see it from the mountain. The view was nice though with Hualalai and the slope of Pu`u Poli`ahu silhouetted against the bright sky to the west.

That was it, time to get back inside and start working. The first night of a run is always busy as there's much to teach the visitor about how to do the observations and how to use the observing software. Although we've made the software very easy to use, you always have to remember that people are working at night and at an oxygen-deprived 14,000 feet so efficiency is reduced, often quite dramatically. The next few hours after sunset on a first night are often quite busy!

Although not taken on Friday night (this was taken on Sunday evening well after sunset during my last stint at the summit) this would have been the view outside had we spent a little longer in the freezing temperatures. Gemini to the left and the UH-88-inch to the right starting their observations for the night - the sky is just dark enough to find some stars and start working. The shift won't be over for another twelve or thirteen hours.

Well, it's time to check in with the summit to see what's going on - that's part of the support job. We have all sorts of displays online so I can tell very quickly how things are going but there's nothing like getting the news directly from those on the summit. It'll be good to chat with our visitor again as well! We'll repeat this on Saturday night and then I'm back at the summit again supporting another visiting astronomer - this time a very good friend of mine and a damn good photographer! That should be another fun evening at work!

PS. Remember you can always click on the pictures to see larger versions.


Anonymous said...

I wish I was able to make that last tour.

Great pictures... as always!

Dang dude... I think you have one of the best "office views" in the world!

kahuku said...

i envy your view from the top of the world. hope you are doing well.

Tom said...

Damon and kahuku - it's so easy to take the office view for granted but I try not to. It's a very special place with the most unique views.