If you aren’t in the field of astronomy, it may be hard to understand what we astronomers do. Surely we don’t set up small telescopes in our backyard to do research—most locations are plagued by light pollution, but neither can we all afford personal island observatories. However, the observatories we do get to visit now put even Uraniborg to shame.
To give a little background first, I am studying star formation in distant galaxies by looking at a narrow band of red light, called Hα emission, which is emitted by young, hot stars. In order to do this, we need a powerful telescope through which we can take images.
Although collecting data with such powerful telescopes happens infrequently, in my opinion, it is the best part of being an astronomer—even if you have to adopt a strange sleep pattern. In 2017, I had the great pleasure of flying to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona to do research. This was my schedule for the second day/night of observing.
12:00 Wake up and win a game of solitaire on my phone.
12:40 Eat breakfast of eggs, bagel, and tea.
13:00 Grab my camera and explore some of the mountain, see the other telescopes and admire the view.
13:30 Remember that I have to do homework and reluctantly return to my room to work.
15:45 Walk up the mountain to set up the telescope for the evening. This consists of warming up the instruments and making sure that the systems appear to be functioning correctly.
16:20 Take selfies in primary mirror, after all, it is not often that you can stand in front of a mirror that is 3.5 meters in diameter.
16:36 Eat dinner of lasagna and bread.
16:55 Take brief tour of mountaintop with advisor, who can provide far more information and history than the couple posted signs.
17:20 Start taking images, called biases and darks, which help with later calibration of our images to remove blemishes from the chips on the camera. Since these don’t require looking at the sky, we can do these before the sun sets.
17:40 Set up camera for a time lapse of the sunset.
17:50 Pick up night lunch, pre-cooked french toast and sausage to eat later.
18:30 Watch the sunset over the distant mountains and catch a brief glimpse of an elusive green flash, which I have only seen on observing trips.
19:05 Begin taking data, we start with a bright standard star for calibration purposes, then move on to pre-selected fields and take images in both broad and narrow-band filters.
00:00 Eat my night lunch.
01:30 Pause in observing to allow the Earth to rotate so that the field of the sky we are trying to observe is far enough away from directly overhead (the zenith). This is a quirk of the specific telescope we are using: it doesn’t take good images at the zenith.
05:30 Power off the telescope and walk down the mountain, enjoying the twilight colors.
05:50 Double check that all electronics are charging and go to sleep.
06:00 Actually go to sleep now that I finished the next two chapters of Sandman.
It was an exhausting trip and as usual, we don’t feel ready to return to the real world. Next, we must wait until the supercomputers do preliminary processing of our images since the final image size is too big for our computers to handle. Until then, I will process my own images and videos to ensure that this wonderful trip will not fade in my memory.
Acknowledgments: I was also joined on this trip by my advisor, Dr. John Salzer, and fellow grad student, David Carr.