This post is written by Jennifer Medina, one of our 2016 TAURUS Scholars. Jennifer had the unique opportunity to go observing at the Keck Telescope in Hawai'i as part of her project at UT Austin with Dr. Andrew Mann. Here she writes about the experience observing at Keck for the first time.
As part of my TAURUS summer research experience, I visited the Keck Observatory for the first time to learn how astronomers take data with high-end equipment.
The Visiting Scientist Quarters
During my visit, I stayed in a facility called the Visiting Scientist Quarters (VSQ) in Waimea, HI, which is where visiting astronomers reside during their observing nights with one of the Keck telescopes. The VSQ was very comfortable and accommodating: They had a kitchen/lounge room where visitors could have their meals, read a magazine, or play a game of pool. During the day when I was not observing, I took to explore the surrounding town of Waimea a little bit and found some nice spots to eat and relax: The facility is located near two shopping centers - both of reasonable walking distance - which have restaurants, a bakery, souvenir stores, and a market. The summit of Mauna Kea is about 14,000 ft above sea level, so I was able to see the observatory on the mountaintop clearly in the morning, until the clouds rolled in during the afternoon. I learned from a local that the mountain is so tall, it develops snowcaps during certain times of the year, which is why it was given the name "White Mountain".
The Observing Experience
In the late evening I took data of binary star systems with Dr. Trent Dupuy and graduate student Megan Ansdell using the Keck 2 telescope's NIRC2, which is an imager designed for infrared and near-infrared wavelengths.
As mentioned before, the Keck observatory is stationed at about 14,000 ft above sea level, which means there is less atmospheric turbulence and light pollution to affect the data. Because of the high altitudes, however, astronomers take data from a remote operations room located in the VSQ instead of going up to the Keck observatory. This is to avoid any potential accidents that may be caused due to lack of oxygen.
The remote operations room was equipped with desks with a computer and several monitors stationed at each of them where astronomers can collect their data. There were two astronomers who were assisting us with our observations throughout the night: The observing assistant and the support astronomer. The observing assistant was at the Keck observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, and was in charge of slewing the telescope to the coordinates of the systems we were observing. He communicated with us through a webcam which was connected to the largest monitor in the room. The support astronomer was in the room with us, and he mainly assisted with any technical questions we had regarding the computer we were using, or general questions about our observations that night.
Time management was crucial while using the telescopes; Astronomers are allocated a specific time bracket to use the Keck telescopes, so every second was dedicated to either taking data or slewing the telescope to a new patch of sky to take more data. The images we retrieved would pop up on one of the monitors through MAGIQ, and we would record the object name, and any comments about the image on a log sheet for that observing night. We observed from ~9 PM to ~4 AM the following day, which is when some clouds started rolling in on the Keck, and we were no longer able to collect data.
Overall the trip was a great learning experience. Everyone in Waimea was very friendly and all of the astronomers treated each other politely and with respect. It was a good environment to work in, and I hope to visit again one day.