1 Oct 2015
Aloha! I’m a University of Hawai‘i at Hilo student interning at [NOAO]Gemini Observatory in the Public Information and Outreach department. In order to share more about what being an astronomer is like, I decided to live the days of a certain type of astronomer, a Science Operations Specialist (SOS), for a weekend at the Gemini North telescope.
Once the shutter (what the telescope “looks” through) and the primary mirror are open, we head back down to the control room where the science begins.
Imagine sitting in a cold room with three other people and 29 monitors for 10 hours every night, all weekend long. Well that’s exactly what I did and it was awesome. Operating the eight-meter Gemini telescope is done via computers and when we were not immersed in our screens, numbers, and excitement, we were talking and laughing about everything from genetic expression, globalization of nations and cultures, 1980’s rappers, and German idioms (“Have you tomatoes on your eyes” is the German equivalent of the expression “Are you blind?/ that outcome was entirely obvious”). There was also much food and hot cocoa involved.
“Observing” is most exciting to me when we are taking direct images of galaxies, supernovae, or comets (etc.) in the infrared. For example, at one point the observer took images of a comet at very short intervals in order to trace its path and in each picture we could see its movement against a background of streaking stars. Spectra are cool too, but not as instantaneously gratifying due to their needing further data analysis to really determine what exactly you are looking at (e.g. Does this galaxy have HII or H-alpha forming regions?) But by far, the best image I saw was from my SOS’s collection of awesome telescope pictures:
It’s a bright young star with its protoplanetary disk, saturating the charge-coupled device (CCD) in just the right way.
During especially long exposures (data-collection periods in which the telescope’s instrument’s shutter remains open to receive more light), the other intern and I would bundle up in thick layers of jackets and scarfs and venture outside the observatory with a pair of infrared goggles. With those goggles we could see five times as many stars; sharp, green and beautiful. We could see Keck 2’s laser aiding its exploration of the night sky. Without the goggles, we admired the long dusty plane of our Milky Way.
Some days I couldn’t sleep. Being nocturnal is hard. So I learned new things about Hale Pohaku as well: the pool table is slanted, always check the expiration dates on yogurt, I’m terrible at ping pong.
Mild altitude sickness near the summit is common, but Gemini workers are accustomed to the elevation. I’ve listened to the experiences of other interns and I’ve heard horror stories (e.g. tour groups puking in the dome). Gemini is a great employer in terms of giving days off in compensation for time on the mountain. I was at the summit only three nights. So my transition back to a day schedule and lower altitude was not too bad. But others, after being on the mountain for five days, need at least one full day to readjust. On my second night of observing, my heart rate spiked after eating instant ramen. My SOS administered oxygen to me via a CHAD unit and cannula (nose tubes and mini O2 tank). I kept the nose tube as a souvenir.
Knowing exactly how a specific science is done goes a long way toward being able to communicate its importance and function to general audiences, and I hope to one day teach Astronomy to grade schoolers here on the Big Island so that they might discover even more about our universe than we can currently imagine.
Me and Gemini’s primary mirror! Photo Credit: Conor O’Neill
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Gemini’s mission is to advance our knowledge of the Universe by providing the international Gemini Community with forefront access to the entire sky.
The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.
The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in six partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva, and the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.