Observing at Keck!mbarlev | September 23, 2010
Hello Astronoblog enthusiasts! Maya Barlev here, Astrophysics major and Haverford class of 2012! This semester I’m in beautiful Honolulu, HI on a program called “A Semester ALMOST Abroad.” It has been WONDERFUL so far– hiking, going to the beach, taking classes at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy…
AND, two weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to observe here:
… at the Keck Telescope on the peak of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i! Keck has the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world! As stated by the Keck Website: “Each telescope stands eight stories tall, weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. The telescopes’ primary mirrors are 10 meters in diameter and are each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass.” Pretty cool, huh? I actually didn’t have time to make it up to the summit to see these incredible telescopes in person, but instead, I observed from here:
This is at Keck Headquarters, several thousand feet closer to sea level. And, this is where all the observing magic happens. All of the computers behind me control the telescope remotely, determining exposure times, focusing the mirrors, adjusting the positioning and so on.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me explain why I was here in the first place. Since this summer, I’ve worked with Prof. Beth Willman exploring the detectability of ultra-faint dwarf galaxies around the Milky Way and Andromeda. I’ve learned a lot about this field of Astronomy and the many challenges Astronomers face when trying to find and then analyze the properties of these elusive satellite galaxies. Beth’s colleague, James Bullock, is exploring similar issues, and had telescope time on Mauna Kea for two nights in September. Knowing that I would be in Hawai’i for the semester, Beth asked James if it would be alright for me to act as an observing assistant on this run.
So, thanks to Beth, James, and the Haverford KINSC Travel Stipend, I was able to go from O’ahu to the Big Island and observe the spectroscopic properties of several Andromeda satellite dwarf galaxies! I observed with Erik Tollerud, James’ graduate student at University of California Irvine. The goals of this run were to look specifically at a few of M31′s (Andromeda’s) faintest dwarfs and examine their stellar populations and ultimately their dark matter components. This research is highly related to the work I do with Beth, but instead of working theoretically from computer simulations, I was able to see this field of research from an observational standpoint.
The itinerary for the weekend was as follows: Arrive Thursday, and try to stay up as late as humanly possible to get used to pulling all-nighters for the purposes of science. Friday, sleep in as late as possible for the same reason. Friday afternoon, prepare the equiptment for observing through many alignments, tests, and so on. After dinner Friday night, begin observing! Every hour or so, we’d need to adjust the coordinates, realign, and focus the telescope. Every minute of dark-sky is precious, and so we had to be efficient. One of the coolest things about observing was that not only were we in an extremely high-tech room with about a dozen computer moniters, but a handful of other scientists were actually also telecommed into the room. So, throughout the night, we were in communication with people in California, Australia, and, of course, Operational Assistants at the peak of Mauna Kea. It was pretty funny to meet a handful of scientists face-to-face who were also thousands of miles away. Saturday was the same in terms of scheduling, but was much easier since we had things set up and ready.
Overall it was an absolutely incredible experience. It was such a privilege to see professional astronomy at work from the modern, observational standpoint. I learned so much, and had a blast doing it! HUGE thank-yous go out to Erik for teaching me everything while at Keck, James for allowing me to be a part of his research, the KISNC for funding me, and, of course, Beth for making it all happen! ALOHA!