Monday, August 8, 2016

TAURUS at McDonald Observatory

This past week was busy for our TAURUS cohort; we set off first thing on Wednesday morning for McDonald Observatory in West Texas, a healthy seven hour drive from Austin.  On board were Danielle, Derek, Jennifer, Elizabeth and Isaiah, along with two UT Austin undergraduate students, Meghana Killi and Anna McGilvray.  Also along for the ride were McDonald veteran, Dr. Adam McKay, science advisor Dr. Brendan Bowler, and TAURUS director, Prof. Caitlin Casey.

Despite the long journey, excitement was in the air as this was the first trip to an observatory for many on-board.  It would also be the first opportunity for many to take a glance at a truly dark night sky.  McDonald Observatory sits in a rather special spot in the continental United States, just north of Big Bend National Park, an internationally recognized dark sky preserve, making it great for astronomical observations in the optical.  This is one of the reasons the site was chosen for the observatory back in 1939.  Now McDonald Observatory hosts three major telescopes: the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope, the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope, and the 11m Hobby Eberly Telescope, along with a few smaller telescopes, including the McDonald 30" Telescope.  Over the course of their visit, the TAURUS scholars would soon become experts in using both the 30" and the 2.7m Smith Telescope.

The evening of our first night on the mountain was spent cramped into the control room of the 30" telescope.  Adam quickly jumped into gear training everyone in its use, including showing them the telescope control system, how to issue commands, and how to take exposures.  Excitement was up as TAURUS scholars snapped a number of shots of famous landmarks in the sky, like the Ring and Dumbbell Nebulas.  The students also helped Adam complete his own science program, targeting bright comets in our solar system in different filters, meant to measure emission in CH and other molecules.  Miraculously, most students stayed up well past mid-night, despite waking up the same morning early to leave Austin!

The next three nights got a bit more serious.  Not only were TAURUS students still operating the 30" telescope, of which they were already expert users, but they had control of the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope.  Our first night on the 2.7m was dedicated to imaging, using the DIAFI instrument, of some nearby galaxies in different filters.  This imaging would help Anna, and her advisor Dr. Kristen McQuinn, analyze the star formation rates in dwarf galaxies, and also help us understand the DIAFI instrument performance more precisely than was previously known.  The data turned out great, and with a New Moon, the skies were very dark for this imaging project!

The next two nights, we were using the Robert G. Tull Coude spectrograph to take spectra of comets, as well as obtain data for one of our TAURUS scholars, Isaiah Tristan.  Isaiah and his supervisor, Brendan, were looking to constrain the motions of stars in our galaxy -- stars they think could be host to planets on very wide orbits, >1000 AU.  They've already identified these mysterious planets, that are potentially free-floating, but now aim to figure out whether or not they belong to any stars nearby.  After reducing their data, Isaiah and Brendan will surely let us know what they find out!

On Friday we were also lucky enough to get a tour of the 11m Hobby Eberly Telescope, which is currently undergoing the final stages of an overhaul to get ready for the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX) project.  As one of the largest telescopes on Earth in one of the most compact domes on Earth, we were thoroughly impressed!

While it's always a challenge to stay up all night, even for astronomers, the night sky was too alluring.  Many hours were spent on the 2.7m catwalk staring at the most beautiful sky most of us had ever seen.  The Milky Way pops out after 30 seconds of dark adaption, and within 10 minutes, clusters, galaxies, and the Milky Way's dust lanes are revealed in stunning detail.  With a tripod in hand, we even got a few great night shots.

After a few all-nighters, TAURUS students were happy to get back to Austin Sunday night, reflecting on what a unique visit they had, and how they are now, all, expert observational astronomers.

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