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In which I reflect on being responsible.

I sit in the late hours of the night, towards the end of the year, in front of my bright computer screens. Tonight is my last scheduled observation for my Quarter 4 program, my fifth night of observing. My vision is filled with the multitude of windows which spring from the TUI – Telescope User Interface. I feel relaxed now, but I’m remembering pangs of anxiety on my first night of observations back in October. I feel the same anxiety about my next first, upcoming observations on an even larger telescope next week. So has the anxiety over being responsible simply been displaced?

the many windows of the TUI

I proposed for telescope time on the 3.5 meter Astrophysical Research Consortium telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in late August, and because not many graduate students at JHU were using our department’s allotted telescope time, I got my time approved without a problem. It was technically my first telescope observing proposal, even though it was just to convince our department’s APO coordinator, Kevin, I put effort into making it professional. I proposed for simple observations which could support some of the science my collaboration was working on. They were observations that I think no one else has taken yet because they’re not very interesting, or important. They’re sorta, pendantic. They could end up clarifying some of the observations of exoplanet atmospheres at the VLT I’ll be responsible for later this week (there’s that anxiety again).

So my first observing run as Principle Investigator was to be low pressure scientifically. Do we need these observations urgently? No. Do we need them at all? Somewhat debatable. Will they be a good learning experience, and maybe useful in a cool niche case, depending on whether a planet or two exists? Definitely. I am the one in charge of making all the things happen for these observations, and the data is mine. I’m taking up space at a large, research grade telescope, one with employees and a bunch of proprietary software that allows me to remote control it from my bedroom, from across the country.

The experience has been pretty illuminating – I’ve learned a lot about spectroscopy, and most of that learning has been self-guided. Luckily, the instrument I’ve been using is pretty old, so all the code to work with the data has already been written by other people. I’m still learning the best practices to get the data quality that I want, and I’m not sure if a lot of my data will actually be usable, but at least I got a lot out of it. The experience gave me the opportunity to teach others too, I worked with an undergraduate and gave them the opportunity to drive the telescope themselves, after I had gotten the handle of it.

I gave up some of my observing block to a few planetary scientists who wanted to take really interesting observations of Venus (maybe more on that later, if they publish their results). I got to see Venus through a big telescope, which was very neat.

Twilight on Venus during a meteor shower

I used some of the same plotting code from a previous post and turned some of my observations from the ARC3.5m into pretty spectra. I’m not super happy with the quality of the data, scientifically, but spectra are still super interesting even when they’re noisier than you expect.

The near-infrared spectra of a baby star, LkCa15. The inset shows an emission line, which is light from superheated hydrogen gas that is falling onto the newborn star, causing it to grow.

Now, the night is almost over. My first PI program is almost complete. What does that make me? A real astronomer? I’m not sure when I became a real astronomer. It’s been a long year, but somewhere in there, it must have happened. Will the next milestone still carry the same anxiety these milestones have? Will the feelings be the same, while the situations change? Maybe that’s life. Observations make me feel either loopy, or quiet. Until next time, clear skies friends.

Update 12/22/2021: the spectrum I took while writing this article turned out really good, waaaay better than the one I posted here! I’m super happy with the result. Maybe there’s a lesson in here about not selling yourself (or your science) short, or something like that?

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Author: willb

I'm Will, a graduate student and astronomer studying star and planet formation. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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