Thailand Week 4

My fourth week in Thailand, and second in Chiang Mai, was fairly uneventful (hence the lack of photos in this post – sorry photo lovers!). By this point I’d become more comfortable eating alone and finding food, and was also quite content to sit and watch TV all evening without worrying about “making the most of it”. With almost no friends in town, and no real urge to hit the party scene, I was quite happy to laze around and take it easy. And so, most days were spent at the office and most evenings were spent at home, fighting ants and becoming addicted to University Challenge.

I found myself working quite a lot on my responsibility to train the local astronomers. It was becoming increasingly obvious that no-one had really thought carefully about to pass on the knowledge we have of how to get the most out of ULTRASPEC, to the local staff. This was slowly becoming my biggest task for the following few weeks, especially as every planned training session so far had been scuppered by awful weather. This week I was scheduled to spend 3 nights at the telescope with David, a Ukrainian astronomer who has been working at NARIT for a couple of years now. He was hoping to get some good data of the interesting binary system AS Eri, and the transiting exoplanet WASP-33b. This exoplanet happens to be the same one I spent 3 months observing for my Master’s project in La Palma, so this had the potential to be a very exciting run of observations.

I found this moth in the control building. Yes, it is bigger than my big toe, and yes I was wearing organic socks. Thanks Mum.

I found this moth in the control building. Yes, it is bigger than my big toe, and yes I was wearing organic socks. Thanks Mum.

Unfortunately, the humidity sat too close to 100% for the entire 3 nights, and we couldn’t open the dome at all. David didn’t seem too disappointed, he probably expected such rubbish weather at this time of year. Whilst losing out on the chance to collect exciting data is always sad, the worst part was the effect it had on the training. So far we’d had so many nights of bad weather that only one of the local astronomers really had any idea how to use ULTRASPEC, but even he hadn’t had enough contact time to be able to make the most of it. I was starting to worry that I’d leave behind an instrument worth £200,000+ in the hands of people who might not be able to use it, or at worst, could be a risk to its safety.

Nu, one of the telescope operators here, had spent a long time trying hard to learn how to run everything, including the complicated data reduction software, so that at least someone from the engineering side could manage the basic operations. He has learned more or less everything there is to learn about the instrument *off-sky*, but he still hasn’t seen it used on-sky at all. Whilst this isn’t hugely different, there are some subtleties, and his lack of observational astronomy experience could make things difficult.

On a side note, after discovering how much I like cycling, Nu was very keen to lend me his bike for the rest of my stay in Thailand. He’d brought it up to the mountain to play around with, so one afternoon I had a quick go at climbing the steep roads around the base camp. I soon discovered that cycling at high altitude, in high temperatures, and having not done any real exercise for a month, was pretty tough. I genuinely came close to passing out more than once, and only managed to go 4km (+400m altitude) along the road before having to turn back. Still, it felt great to be on a bike again.

The views were worth it, even if I did nearly die.

The views were worth it, even if I did nearly die.


Back to the training: to make matters worse, the other research-grade imaging instrument on the TNT, a commercial 4000 x 4000 pixel camera from the US, was not working. It was installed the week before, and was due to be in operation from the first night after David’s ULTRASPEC run. It seemed like almost every possible thing that could go wrong with the installation had gone wrong, and the 4k camera would be out of action until late December. What does a sensible observatory do when one of their two camera is unusable? Use the other one, of course. What did you think they would do?

After three nights of dire boredom at the telescope, I was asked to stay another night to help Nu and Tim operate ULTRASPEC instead of the 4k camera. This run was for a Professor in China, who it seems was too important to come to observe himself, and so had asked Tim to do it instead. Tim is one of the other telescope operators here, and is also not an astronomer (yet). So there I was, losing my Friday night to the grim weather at Doi Inthanon. Woo…

Thankfully, because it was obvious that the weather would not improve throughout the night, Nu offered to drive me down to Chiang Mai at around 10pm. It took me several days to re-adjust from the night shift after this, but I was very much relieved to be down again. On Saturday afternoon I went to get Nu’s bike tinkered with to make it a little safer, and also splashed out on some new cycling gear (shorts and jersey), so that I could really make the most of the bike. Because, if you don’t have the gear, you can’t enjoy the ride properly, obviously…


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