in which I travel to an observatory and have a good time
last month, a few days after my apartment flooded, I got to go on an observing run in person for the first time since the pandemic started. technically, it was a training to learn how to operate the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) 3.5m telescope, but “observing run” gets the point across just fine. I was grateful for the break from my deteriorating life in Baltimore, the opportunity to visit a new place, and to learn more about telescope operations.
some background, first, eh? I’m a first year graduate student in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. The middle of Baltimore isn’t the most incredible place to observe the night sky (even though I still try), so the department here buys a share of telescope time as part of a consortium of other US schools who all jointly fund the operation of an observatory, namely Apache Point Observatory, in Sunspot, NM. Students, postdocs, and professors in the department (myself included) all send proposals for how to use JHU’s telescope time to a professor whose job it is to review said proposals and divide up the time fairly and reasonably.
Apache Point Observatory (APO), was built at about 2,800m elevation in the southwest by the University of New Mexico, who host and coordinate the operation of the facility. The land is traditionally Mescalero Apache territory; the Mescalero reservation, home of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, is located about 1-2 hours by car north of the observatory. The observatory is about 3-4 hours south of the Sierra Blanca mountain, which is one of four sacred mountains to the Mescalero Apache, and an hour east of the White Sands desert. Members and relatives of the Mescalero Apache Tribe are involved in organizing all over the continent that you can support, including the Indigenous Women Rising group (links here, and here), the Giniw Collective (links here, and here), and The Red Nation (link here).
I’d previously used the ARC 3.5m to observe exoplanet hosts last semester, my first observing program as a “Principle Investigator,” meaning that I proposed for an idea I had, and was in charge of executing the observations myself. I did that work remotely, due to travel restrictions. The telescope observations are scheduled quarterly, and in Q1, our group of exoplanet researchers at JHU had a few project ideas. We all organized this trip to get trained together, and got it funded as a class trip by roping in our Professor Kevin Schlaufman who acted as our chaperone. The observations we took while on site were for a project PI’d by my good friend Zafar, of a transiting object. Altogether, my friends and colleagues Lakeisha, Natalie, Rongrong, Kaden, and Muryel started out by flying from Baltimore to El Paso, where we met up with Zafar, before driving to APO.
I had only ever been to the southwest once before, when I visited in Jan. 2020 to observe at the WIYN 0.9m telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (I wrote about that experience here, and about the minimum of responsibility I believe us settler astronomers doing astronomy at KPNO have to the O’odham Nation here). During that trip, I had the opportunity to explore the Saguaro National Park, which was an amazing experience. I’m not a big fan of humidity (to say the least), so I love the desert for its dry, commanding heat.
We managed to avoid a truly terrible air traffic snag and made it to El Paso relatively late, then drove 3 hours to APO to arrive late at night. Driving up NM 6563, named for the wavelength of the bright H-alpha line in the Balmer series, an emission line found throughout the cosmos in a variety of contexts, we had to turn our headlights off as we approached the observatory to avoid scattering light into the telescopes. We saw a ton of deer posted up at the entrance to the facility, staring eerily at our weary arrival.
The next day we began early and got the tour of the facility from Candace and Russet, two of the telescope operators at APO. It was awesome to meet both in person, as I had become acquainted with their virtual personalities during my remote observations. They turned out to be just as cool, if not cooler, in the flesh. We got the tour of the ARC 3.5m dome and saw how the telescope functioned. We also got to take a bunch of fun pictures in front of the mirror, like those below.
I had some good conversations about this with the others: often as astronomers we tend to discredit telescopes smaller than the very biggest 10 and 8m class facilities. A majority of my research, specifically direct imaging, is effectively impossible to accomplish with telescopes smaller than 6 or so meters in diameter, to the point where to try to do so outside specific circumstances (very, very widely separated co-moving companion objects, for instance) is generally a waste of resources. Even outside of technical feasibility though, there is a kind of elitist stigma against smaller facilities, which nevertheless are essential to producing quality research across every subdivision in our field. Part of this is by construction; the most elite universities in America have private, exclusive access to the largest telescopes (Harvard and University of Michigan at Magellan, the UCs and Caltech at Keck, for example), and these schools generally continue to hire out of each other such that the R1 circuit of professional astronomers becomes even more insular than usual for higher education. The department at JHU is something of an outlier amongst R1 schools for this reason, most likely because its close relationship with and proximity to STScI and APL, and it’s involvement in other instrumentation projects like CLASS (lending good access to specialized time on more tailored observatories, and generally more interest in space based observatories). In terms of dedicated ground-based time, JHU maintains a ‘modest share’ of a ‘modest scope.’
Being next to a 3.5m telescope in person wipes all that away. The thing is incredible, and Candace even allowed us to observe using an eyepiece. Looking through this massive instrument with our own eyes. You just don’t get that experience on bigger scopes, unless you’re an instrument scientist.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. After our tour of the 3.5m facility, we got to watch the sunset from the mountain-top, and see the other smaller telescopes open up. We saw the 2.5m Sloan Digital Sky Survey instrument open up on it’s pier nearby, and then found our way to the conference room adjacent to the control room to settle in for work tonight.
Our training was a crash course in the Telescope Users Interface (that I allude to in a previous post), which isn’t that interesting to describe, in part because I learned how to use it in a trial by fire remotely last semester. Needless to say, we pointed the telescope at our targets and told the computer to take cool pictures with fancy cameras. I can’t show you any of Zafar’s transits, since those are *serious research* and *proprietary* but I can show you a neat nebula picture I snapped while driving the ARCSAT 0.5m telescope (a twin to the 20 inch telescope on the roof of the building here in Baltimore). Turns out taking a telescope of that size to an exceptional observing location drastically improves it’s utility. The below image is of a nebula designated NGC 3242 and referred to sometimes as “the Ghost of Jupiter” or “Jupiter’s Ghost” because it has an angular size similar to other solar system planets, but is much larger and much further away, and is definitely just a diffuse ball of gas expelled by a dead star, and not a planet.
Our first night of observations went well, as everyone got a turn driving the telescope while we observed Zafar’s transit and some of Muryel’s merger candidates. We went to bed about halfway through the evening as we turned over our time to another observing team, and went to bed in the early hours of the day. The next day, we drove down the mountain in the afternoon to visit the White Sands desert during sunset. The desert was incredibly gorgeous, although populated by tourists like ourselves. The sand is very fine, and I enjoyed walking part of our hike barefoot, and sitting running it through my fingers.
The next night, Muryel had a suite of observations that we all sat in on, and the evening went relatively smoothly. We got a bit loopy, but luckily didn’t disturb the telescope operators *too* much.
In the early afternoon the following day, we traveled to the giftshop at the Sunspot Solar Observatory a trail away from APO. We toured the solar observatory and got some tchotchkes. I woke up late, and forgot to get food and water before hiking over, so I had to take a few recovery breaks. I got a kitschy solar observatory t-shirt that has quickly become one of my favorites. We were shown three antler racks in the basement of the Solar Observatory (don’t ask).
Our last night, we finished observing Zafar’s 2nd transit event, and then had an hour remaining on the telescope to mount an eyepiece and do some star gazing. The night was magical, the weather was excellent. Candace, our amazing telescope operator, took some really wonderful pictures of us in the dome of the telescope foregrounding the night sky. Zafar also took a picture through the eyepiece with his phone camera of the Ghost of Jupiter, showing its gorgeous blue color. I never thought it would be possible for me to *see* nebulous gas with my own eyes, but I was afforded the chance to. I’m pretty bad at squinting properly to actually focus the image through the eyepiece (I would be a pretty crap astronomer 100 years ago), but I eventually managed it.
Although I might not have been cut out for the astronomy of the last century, I got to learn more from master telescope operators Russet and Candace about their jobs, and realized that I am very interested in that experience. I have to admit that that career path really appeals to me.
After our jaunt with the eyepiece, we slept and woke early to drive back to El Paso and catch our flights back to Baltimore. The trip ended in something of a blur. The stillness and calm of the mountain contrasted the bustle of airports and highways. Then it was over. I returned to find my life in Baltimore as I left it, in complete disarray, but for a few days I got to slow down and enjoy mountain time.
Hope you appreciated the pretty pictures. Until next time, clear skies.