Interview: Follette Lab’s MagAOX web-tool team (Telescope Time Trials)

Willb/ September 30, 2020/ Interviews, research log/ 0 comments


This article was originally published in the Amherst STEM Network magazine online (at this link) with the title “Telescope Time Trials.” I’ve republished it here for posterity (the online articles usually fleeting – there will be a link to the stable magazine copy of this article sometime soon as well). I hope you enjoy it, and that you check out the other science communicators at the STEM Network, who cover all the great research, events, and guest speakers the various departments at Amherst host.


This post is the second in a series highlighting the fantastic astronomy research Amherst students have conducted this summer. For more information on the series, visit this post.

This week, Astronomy Department Editor William Balmer (that’s me) interviewed one of the six Follette Lab students who presented at the Colloquia. Khalid Mohamed ‘22 led a project, working alongside Joseph Martinez ‘22 and Rafael Vaninmunoz ‘22, to develop a webtool to assist observers at the Magellan telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. I had the opportunity to talk to Khalid about the project, web development in the context of astronomy, and his leadership experience.

Interview with the Follette Lab MagAOX team

William B.: “Tell us about yourself and where you worked this summer.”

Khalid M.: “My name is Khalid Mohamed, a Computer Science and Astronomy student at Amherst College. I’m currently a 3rd-year student (Class of 2022), and this past summer, I… [worked] in Professor Follette’s lab as a SURF student researcher. This was my second summer working for Professor Follette — on the same project — albeit fully remote.”

W: “What research project did you take on?”

K: “The project I have been working on is called ‘The MagAOX Web Tool’ — a, as aptly named, webtool for astronomers using the MagAOX telescope. Fortunately for me, I worked on this project with two great friends of mine — Rafael Vanin-Muñoz ‘22 and Joseph Martinez ‘22, both also Computer Science students.”

W: “What would you say were the goals of the project?”

K: “So the most accurate answer of what I worked on was more tool development rather than standard astronomical science research. I guess to best explain what I did, let’s set the scene of the science behind the project, the problem we want to solve, and how exactly our project solves it.

W: “Sounds great.”

K: “MagAOX is an acronym for ​Magellan-Adaptive-​Optics-E​X​treme, with the EXtreme being an upgrade to the existing MagAO telescope. The Magellan Telescopes are a pair of 6.5-metre-diameter optical telescopes located at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The

Adaptive Optics instrument — added to the Clay Magellan Telescope in 2013 — allows for more precise data to be collected by the instrument using an adaptive deformable mirror, which corrects light that is deformed by the Earth’s atmosphere. An upgrade to this tool, called the Magellan Adaptive Optics EXtreme instrument, is set to launch this year. With this new tool and pipeline, we seek to provide a tool to astronomers [that] will expedite and aid their observing nights. Fun fact — each night of observing costs ~$50,000, so the limited time a researcher gets is extremely valuable. The primary function of this tool is to expedite and assist observers who will be conducting observations using the MagAOX telescope. When an observer requests time to conduct observations, the telescope must be calibrated to their needs. Lack of a prepared calibrations document or mistakes in the calibration of the telescope can suck up vast amounts of precious time and money.”

W: “What does the tool actually do, then?”

K: “[The] tool is designed to query SIMBAD and VIZIER, two astronomical databases, to collect information on the target stars, returning to the user the calibrations for the telescope — and other useful data for observing runs like visibility statistics, existing spectral data ontargets, and a prediction of how their observing run will go. Concisely put, the launch of this web tool will allow observers to use the MagAOX telescope much more efficiently and effectively, allowing for more seamless observing nights. As of the end of this past summer, we have completed our first functional version of the website — live online, with the tasks we wanted to achieve working. The website certainly isn’t all too pretty or efficient, but it’s a project we all continued to work on into this school year.”

The front page for the MagAOX webtool, including an image of the Magellan telescope and Amherst alumni Clare Leonard ‘19.

W: “Results are results! Not everyone can say their website works and looks as sleek as yours. What would you say you got out of the project?”

K: “The result of this summer experience has been threefold: a rigorous experience in server and web development, developing my programming and science programming skills, and better solidifying my understanding of Observational Astronomy and reading of the science literature. First, this whole project was predicated upon us being able to set up a website [that] would take in a list of target stars, dates, and instrument configurations and return common astronomical graphs, a configuration file, and other useful files. Learning the intricacies of setting up such a pipeline and bringing it to life was easily one of the most profound learning experiences I’ve ever had. Similarly, since our entire project consisted of programming a pipeline and processing existing data in the literature on targets, my programming and science programming (and science communication) skills have greatly improved. Finally, this summer I had to read several papers on the construction and story/science behind MagAOX, as well as weekly Journal Club Presentations — in tandem with learning/upgrading the tool we wanted to make and seeing how it would be useful/needed — so I feel more fluent and confident in my understanding of, and ability to learn and understand, Observational Astronomy and physical and computing sciences.”

W: “What do you think was the best part, or what was the most positive outcome personally from the summer?”

K: “It’s a tie between all the skills I picked up and developed and the synchronized whole-lab sessions we did on a daily basis. For the latter, we would have weekly Journal Clubs, Group (update) Presentations, Hack Sessions, and Social Events. All the people in the lab are super cool, and being able to upgrade my skills and just… work in a lab, I guess, has been super rewarding. Also, just Zoom-ing Joseph and Raf on a daily basis to work synchronously was really fun, and when the summer ended and we Zoomed a month later — where I had moved my desk — the first thing they noticed was my new background. Pretty amusing to me how remote working entails your background being part of what the image of you is in people’s heads (‘digital remote face’). Also, just the ability to work on a project that the team I work in started from scratch is just straight up rewarding.”

W: “Thanks so much for the great interview Khalid, and best of luck to you, Rafael, Joseph, and the MagAOX webtool!”

Final thoughts

Thanks to the Physics and Astronomy Department for organizing these flash-talks, and thanks to Khalid for his awesome interview. Look out for more coverage of astronomy summer research next week (in the October magazine issue), when we’ll highlight another flash-talk by, and get to interview with, Lena Treiber ‘22 on her research using data from the NICER x-ray telescope to measure the “pulse profile” of an X-ray Binary (🤯).

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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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