Kitt Peak Observing Run: Night 1

Greetings from the sunny town of Tucson, Arizona! I’m here this week doing some observing. We are hunting Voorwerp! I left the UK on Saturday lunchtime and, in a strange convergence of fate (or more accurately time zones), arrived in the US at approximately the same time! Following a delayed flight from Denver to Tucson, and a journey of around 23 hours, I am finally here.

I am extremely excited about this trip for two reasons. First it’s going to be great to get more information on the potential new voorwerp candidates but also because – and I am going to let you in to my dirty little secret here – I am not a real astronomer!

As I hear the calls of “charlatan”, “fake” and other unkind names, I beg you to hear me out. As a PhD student I, like many astronomers, studied theory. This involved no end of sitting infront of computers, chewing pens and generally contemplating the Universe. In particular I made Universes, fake ones on the computer which we could use to compair to the real Universe, and thats where the trouble began. Like many theorists I came to be quite fond of my models, they where much cleaner and prettier than the real Universe. I became much more concerned with tweaking these models than paying attention to the real Universe. To compound the problem, most of the data that we need had either already been taken, in large automated surveys like the SDSS and the 2dFGRS, or woudn’t be gathered until new surveys came online. So, dear reader, it came to be that I obtained a PhD in astronomy without ever once visiting a telescope. Oh I looked through telescopes: small ones we used on public observing evenings. I would stand beside them and boldly talk with authority about what people saw there as I waited for the dreaded question. I could always feel it coming: “so what’s the biggest telescope you have ever used?”. I would hang my head in shame and have to tell them that they where looking at it.

Kit peak sign

So this is my baptism, my rite of passage to become a “real” astronomer. I have gone in to the Arizona desert with a pack of garcinia cambogia extract and I shall not return until I have my trophy, my symbol of astronomical manhood if you will: a data file full of galaxy spectra. If I dont return with this token, I accept that I shall be exiled from the astronomical community and no one will talk to me at parties anymore.

In stark contrast to my tardy admission to the “real” astronomer club, are the 4 summer students I am here with. These guys are from all across the US here even before they start a PhD they are losing their observing virginity. They certainly seem a lot less phased by the bank of computers, controls and systems which line the walls of the control room we are sitting in as I type this. They are observing everything from asteroids to AGN tonight and are taking to it like ducks to water.

Kitt Peak is where we are observing from, not so much a hill as a small town of telescopes. The hillside is dotted with domes from the imposing Mayall 4-m Telescope which sits high on the hill dominating and dwarfing the rest, to the more modest smaller domes used for public observing. Its easy to see why there are so many telescopes here, just popping my head out the door reveals a stunning sky full of stars (all at a slightly odd angle to my UK eyes), crowned by the magical Milky Way. On the horizon can be seen the lights of Tucson itself, a sight impressive for the lack of things to see. An equivalent sized city anywhere else in the world would make the sky glow a sickly orange. Tuscon by comparison is pretty dim, a lot of places could learn a thing or two about light pollution from here.

As I sign off, one of the students here is just starting some exposures of a globular cluster. We just got the first few pics and they look great. Tonight I am simply a tourist, gate crashing someone else’s party, but tomorrow night myself and Bill Keel will be heading to the 2.1 meter telescope to start our work. Then the pressure will be on, then I get to prove myself… I only hope I am as confident as the students seem to be! First however: sleep.

Tune in next time to find out if Stuart survives the jet lag and heat and we begin our search for new voorwerps.

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