Observing at CHARA:
I finally did it; I went on my first observing trip! It was so much cooler than I could have imagined and I already can’t wait to go again. If you want to know more about my internship and how I got here, make sure to read my last post and get up to date! Below is a short video montage of some of the highlights of my trip.
From the start, this trip was exciting. I dont think anyone can go from Louisiana to Los Angeles and not get pumped, hah. After meeting up with Tyler, the grad student I was working with and whom I spent all summer helping, we passed by the SpaceX headquarters (something I’ve always wanted to do, I was over the moon), picked up some groceries for the cabin we’d be staying at and made the 45 min drive up the winding roads to the observatory on the top of Mount Wilson. I actually got to see the facility from the plane, though I couldn’t get any good videos or pictures. After getting to the top, we got our cabin keys, said hello to the staff on shift, and settled in. I had to wake up at 3:30 am to catch my flight so by the time 8 pm rolled around I was already passed out (keep in mind the time change too).
The next day was a lot of busy work on other projects until it was finally time to observe! At 6 pm we got ready and started the observing process, which was actually much easier than I thought. The hard part was just staying awake, something that became extremely difficult at around 2 am. However, around that time the cloud cover started to roll in and it stopped our observing. Though I was excited to go to bed a little early, I was also disappointed that one of our two days of observing was already over. Luckily we had much better luck on day two though.
I got to sleep in a little more that day too, but I still woke up before noon so I could get a tour of the facility. I got to see the labs with all the carts and mirrors and was able to go inside the S2 observatory (CHARA has 2 arms comprising of 6 observatories). The whole place was even more complex than I had imagined; I couldn’t even comprehend how someone could even think up how to build some of the stuff that ran everything we used. Speaking of what we used, the second night had no clouds and I got a lot more hands on with all the observations and using the equipment myself. We even took a record amount of data the second night, so, as Dr. Tabby says, #WINNING!!!
One thing to note is that astronomers don’t actually look through telescopes anymore. Everything is captured on a camera attached to the telescope and controlled by computers. So, my entire time at CHARA I was sitting at a computer station with 6 screens. It looked really confusing, but it was simpler to control than you might think. After Tyler got me to start really doing everything myself, I learned how everything worked and how to control it all within an hour. I even started to take control of all the observing for large swaths of time. What we were actually doing was something called fringe-finding. Here’s a quote from EHT director Shep Doeleman about what this means exactly:
This is what I did, lining up fringes until it looked right, letting it integrate and collect data for a few minutes (sometimes this process took upwards of 30 minutes which really killed momentum), moving calibrators/targets, and realigning the mirrors. This process repeated itself over and over until about 6 am rolled around and we could shut things down. Though this might sound boring, and being honest it was, it can yield data that, after analysis, can tell us a lot of information about stars that are many many lightyears away. This analyzation is what I’m going to learn to do next, so stay tuned for what comes 😉
I should be going back to CHARA sometime in the future, though not this year and I probably wont post unless something really different or interesting happens. Overall though, it was an amazing trip and thinking about it still makes me really happy.