I decided to take a bit of a different direction and talk about the work I’m doing this summer! This summer, I’ve been working at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, AZ, as part of their Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. An REU program is essentially a program where a university or an organization brings in undergraduates to do research over the summer. I did an REU last summer at Williams College, and studied planetary nebulae.
This summer, I’m studying ultra-luminous infrared galaxies. These are galaxies that emit more light in the infrared than at all other wavelengths combined. They obtain these extreme luminosities through bursts of star formation, active galactic nuclei (aka supermassive central black holes!), or a combination of the two. I spent the first part of the summer finding the redshifts of a group of these galaxies – measuring a redshift is essentially a way of finding out how far away a galaxy is. Now I’m working on measuring their emission line strengths, so that we can find out if they are undergoing star formation, if they have active galactic nuclei, or if both are occurring.
As part of the summer program, the REU students get to observe on Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitt Peak is about 90 minutes from Tucson, at an elevation of 6,750 feet. They have reserved 2 weeks total for the REU students to observe on the 2.1 m telescope. During the first week, we use an infrared imager, and during the second week, we will use an optical spectrograph. Each individual student gets to be at the observatory for five nights. I have three nights using the infrared imager, and two nights on the optical spectrograph. I got to Kitt Peak yesterday afternoon, and observed for the first time last night. I thought it would be cool to post a sort of observing diary, since I was writing about what we were doing as the night went on. So below is my observing diary for night one, starting on the afternoon of Jul 20th, and ending in the wee hours of the morning on Jul 21st.
Some of the telescopes on Kitt Peak, including the 4 meter Mayall Telescope.
Observing Diary, Day 1
4:40 pm: We got up to Kitt Peak around 3:30 in the afternoon. It was still pretty hot up here, but it cooled off quickly. It’s nothing like Tucson! The first thing we did was settle into our dorm rooms. The dorms are nice! After we settled in, we went up to the 2.1 m telescope to fill one of the liquid nitrogen tanks (there are two – one for the spectrograph and one for the imager). The liquid nitrogen is used to keep the instruments cool. We will have to fill the other, larger tank later tonight. The larger tank is for the imager. We’ll be getting dinner at 5 pm, in just a few minutes. I’m excited to observe tonight! There’s been some thunder, but it seems to be off in the distance. Hopefully the weather will hold out and we’ll get some good observations. If not, I hope we at least get good lightning!
Me during the filling of the liquid nitrogen tank
Me on the catwalk outside the telescope dome, with a .9 m telescope in the background.
11:59 pm: So, we haven’t done any observing of objects yet. It was really cloudy earlier, with “threatening clouds” (this term is used for any clouds that could potentially produce rain). Then it actually did rain. So although we were able to take darks and dome flats, we weren’t able to do anything that requires opening the dome. Darks and dome flats are used for reducing the images you take of objects. I had a great time going around and setting up stuff for the telescope. We even got to go on a dome ride! Typically with telescopes, the dome rotates in a circle around the telescope, moving the slit. The telescope also rotates to where the slit is, and moves up and down to take pictures of objects in the slit. A dome ride consists of standing on floor on the part of the dome that rotates. It totally felt as if the telescope is moving and you are standing still, rather than what it actually is (you rotating around the telescope). It’s awesome! So, for the past hour and a half or so, I’ve just been sitting here on my laptop. I fell asleep in my chair a couple times. Hopefully the rest of the night brings clearer weather!
3:49 am: Around 2 am, the clouds started to clear, so we opened the dome. We were pointing the telescope (making sure the telescope knew where it was), and focusing it, and just when we had finished doing these things around 3 am, we got a call that more threatening clouds were coming in and we needed to close. We spent some time closing up the dome, shutting everything down, and filling out an observing log, then returned to the dorms. I’m in my dorm now, but I feel strangely awake. I’m going to watch a tv show on my laptop until I finally fall asleep. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to observe any science objects, but taking darks, flats, and pointing the telescope are all important parts of observing. So it was definitely not a waste of a night. I feel like I learned a lot! Here’s hoping tomorrow brings better weather (or at least some sweet storms and lightning).