The perils of observational astronomy

Last night we lost the entire night due to technical problems at the WHT. The telescope control system (or TCS) crashed multiple times, and eventually conked out altogether. Despite James’ best efforts, we were unable to recover the systems, and gave up at around midnight. This was particularly disappointing for Stu, as it was the clearest, calmest and final night of his CV follow-up program. The nature of the observations mean that if we’d manage to collect a night-ful of good data last night, the scientific outcome of the 2-night program would have more than tripled. Bummer.

James fiddling with ancient hardware, trying to fix the TCS problems.

James fiddling with ancient hardware, trying to fix the TCS problems.

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Really ancient hardware. This one is definitely older than I am.

Obviously, we were very disappointed not to observe, but the silver lining was that we could start packing up ULTRACAM early, and even get some sleep. With Stu leaving at 10:30am to catch his flight, we were going to be rushing to get everything dismounted and packed away, especially as the last stage requires help from the telescope engineers, who don’t start work until 9:30am. But, with an extra 8 hours of time to kill, we were able to take off all the cables and have ULTRACAM ready for the engineers by 2am. This allowed us to get a few hours sleep before the final dismount, and Stu was able to leave with plenty of time to catch his flight.

Tonight I’m at the INT, catching up with a friend who’s here for 8 nights. His original proposal was to look at the famous Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, but as you must surely already know, ISON didn’t survive its close approach to the Sun at the end of November. This left Yudish with 8 x 13 hours of observing time to fill, so he’s been busy observing lots of different objects, from other comets, to asteroids, and even Jupiter’s moon Europa.

When I lived in La Palma whilst completing my Masters year, most of my observatory duties were at the INT. It’s the student-run telescope, with four student support astronomers working here each year. The main task is to train visiting observers on how to use the telescope, which doesn’t come complete with a dedicated telescope operator like at the WHT. Other important jobs are helping to improve the telescope and instrumentation facilities, and carrying out night time tests and observations on technical nights. The INT was the first British telescope on La Palma, and moved here in the early 80’s from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It’s even older than the WHT, and can get really creepy at night, so I’m quite happy to keep Yudish company.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading down to Santa Cruz, and the rest of my time here will be spent hiking, diving, and of course eating. I’m feeling much better than the other night, so all I have to hope for now is good weather and warm water.

The view towards Tenerife and La Gomera from the INT.

The view towards Tenerife (left) and La Gomera (right) from the INT.

Sunset from the INT.

Sunset from the INT.



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