The couple of days I had in Hilo before heading up the mountain involved leis, turtles and coqui frogs. That’s the glamourous side of things but underneath it all I was bricking it for my first observing run!
My host greeted me at the airport with a hug and a lei. When we arrived at my part time home for the next 5 weeks, I was happy to hear the coqui frogs. Most people find them annoying, because they’re really loud! Coqui frogs are an invasive species that hitched a ride from the Philippines. Apparently Wal-Mart accidentally imported some plants with their eggs on which escalated things! ‘Poo peep’ 🙂
The next day I woke up not really knowing what to do with myself, so I thought ‘when in Rome’… and dragged my bum to the beach. I’m in two minds how I feel about this escapade in hindsight. On one hand I got to swim in the lovely sea and saw turtles! But on the other hand, the 8 mile round trip of a walk along the roadside was pretty demoralising! To be fair I didn’t have to walk so far, but I was determined to get to Richardson’s beach park to see turtles, however I stopped a mile short due to blisters… because I walked 4 miles in flipflops…!
Seeing the turtles was undeniably super awesome. The first time I went to Hawaii and saw a turtle I accidentally screamed at it. It had sneaked up behind me and deliberately scared me, which is exactly what happened this time, except I managed to stifle the scream! It was huge though. I ran off to get my camera and when I came back there were three of them. The big one was being a bit bitey with the other ones so maybe I should have screamed at it.
The beach was nice but the long walk back was pants! I went to bed feeling pretty nervous about my first observing run.
The next day I was lucky enough to get a lift to the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) from my host, which lifted my spirits. It’s only half an hour’s walk, but that’s up a hill and in the midday sun, so I was happy to accept a ride.
Once I was at the IfA, I unlocked the secret box of keys, found myself an IRTF car and set off for Mauna Kea. (IRTF is the NANA Infrared Telescope Facility, which is the telescope I used to look at Jupiter). Somehow I got caught up in the moment and managed to sail past the turn off to the Saddle road. It’s not very hard to miss… it’s a very simple journey that is signposted and everything! I think my brain was just going ‘look at me! I’m driving a HUGE car on the other side of the road, all by myself. Aren’t I clever…’ but it wasn’t clever because I forgot to turn off! I managed to park at a shop and asked a lady for directions and was super relieved when she suggested I follow her!
The rest of the journey was misty but uneventful and I broke through the clouds at Hale Pohaku at 2804 meters above sea level. Hale Pohaku is the place where visiting astronomers stay. The name means house of stone in Hawaiian, and refers to two stone houses which were built back in the 30’s to house the Civilian Conservation Corps while they were installing forest reserve boundary fences. The buildings we stay in today were built back in the 60’s when this whole astronomy thing started up on the summit of Mauna Kea.
It was nice to be back at Hale Pohaku. Last April we spent 9 nights up here, so it was good to be on familiar ground. After settling into my room I popped up to the canteen for dinner. After feeling a little isolated down in Hilo it was nice to chat to some telescope operators during dinner and catch up on the latest news on the mountain.
This was my acclimatisation night and I wouldn’t be observing until the following evening/morning. So I borrowed a car and headed up to the summit to catch the sunset. The gravel road to the summit is the justification for the huge ass cars we drive up the mountain, they have to be 4 wheel drive to handle the terrain. It sounds extreme but it’s not so scary when you’re driving in first gear at 20 miles per hour! So I bimbled up the mountain managing to miss sunset by 5 minutes! But still it was lush to be up there. Everything looked so beautiful and peaceful.
After descending back down to Hale Pohaku, I headed to bed to begin my nocturnal life style. I forced myself to get up at 2am and headed up to the IRTF office, above the canteen, to do some work. I had to finish writing the macros for the telescopes. Macros are like little computer programs that tell the telescope where to look. It’s a little bit confusing for both me and telescope as Jupiter’s North Pole isn’t aligned with the Earth’s North Pole. So to all those people who asked that question in maths: ‘when am I ever going to use trigonometry again?” well your answer is at 4am up a mountain at 2804m.
The instrument that we use is called CSHELL and it is a long slit echelle spectrometer and we create an image of Jupiter by moving the telescope so that this slit steps down the planet (more info in the PhD in a nutshell blog). So I have to write the macro which starts at the northern pole of Jupiter and then finished about a quarter of the way down the planet, having taken 29 spectral slit images on the way! Thankfully my supervisor had already written some macros so I only had to adapt them for my observing runs.
After doing my trig, I went on a sunrise hike to a little cinder cone near to Hale Pohaku and then came back for breakfast. I finished off my work on my macros before lunch and headed to bed in the afternoon.
I didn’t sleep very well, I was stressing I’d miss my alarms and sleep through my observations! But I woke up with enough time and went to IRTF office to start my instrument calibrations. I didn’t have to wait until my allotted time slot to do the calibrations because the observer before me was using SpeX, which is the other instrument attached to the telescope. Since the calibration lamps are contained inside the instrument you can run the calibrations whenever CSHELL is free. Once the calibrations were done, I drove up to the summit.
The first thing that happens before you can begin observing is the instrument needs to be changed. The telescope is made up of two mirrors which reflect the light down into the instrument. There’s no eye piece to look through, instead we have the instruments to do the looking. The telescope operator puts the telescope into and upright position and then manually pushes the two instruments around underneath the telescope until they are in the right position. Because Jupiter’s North Pole isn’t aligned with Earth’s, we had a right faff figuring out the rotation of the instrument. CSHELL is about as old as me and so to rotate it you need a highly sophisticated spanner!
The telescope operator explained that since we had used CSHELL last, it had been taken off the telescope so they could practise with iCSHELL, which is the new and improved version of CSHELL… coming soon… So my prior, if somewhat limited understanding of the rotation, was now completely useless. With lots of help from the telescope operator, we got something that looked kind of right… but with all the faff the sky was already getting quite light (in astronomical terms at least!) and so we only had enough time to take two scans of the northern hemisphere and then a quick star calibration. We’d had fantastic clear skies, so regardless of which way round my data was, it would be good!
The telescope operator drove us down and we had breakfast. Then I went and played with my data to make a raw image of Jupiter, which was pretty exciting! My first Jupiter data! While I was faffing with my data and making alterations to my macros, I received an email containing my referees’ comments on my paper that I submitted back in October! I’d been dreading this moment for months, but a positive front from the editor made me read the reviewers comments with an open but critical mind. I felt pretty good about collecting my own Jupiter data and then receiving the reviewers’ comments. Although the deadline is the 3rd of March, so I’m going to have to get cracking with those corrections!
I filled the rest of the morning with a cinder cone hike and lunch before bed. Even though I had the night off, I wanted to maintain my nocturnal habits. So I woke up at 2am and tried to do some more work, of course allowing time for a classic Mauna Kea sunrise hike before breakfast. After breakfast I worked on my tan and my paper revisions outside in the sun, which was lush and surprisingly productive! Standard lunch and then bed procedure.
Got up just after midnight for my second observing run, feeling pretty confident I knew what I was doing. Did the cals, drove up and the weather was looking great. I had a different telescope operator, and so we went through the rotation stuff again and I became even more confused. He thought CSHELL had been put back in a different way and it was all very confusing. After a while of trying some rotations and discussing things I just decided to crack on and collect some data, regardless of the rotator! It seemed to be working anyway! The skies were clear and so even if I didn’t know actually my orientation, I was still going to get great data.
I was a bit bummed that we hadn’t worked out the rotation stuff yet! It was a bit frustrating not being able to understand the problem and therefore not be able to figure out the solution. After we got down and had breakfast I bumped into the day crew and spoke to them about my problems, they’d sent around some emails already and it was really nice to know everyone was helping us out with our rotating problem.
I rounded off my first two observing runs by creating a huge queue behind me as I drove back down to sea level. In my defence I was being good and obeying the speed limit!