Working abroad: Wonders and Woes

I’m back at the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope in La Palma for more ULTRACAM observing. This time I’m on the island for a whole 3 weeks (2 on the mountain, 1 at sea-level), with two separate ULTRACAM runs. When I get back, I’ll have 5 days before leaving again for 2 weeks in Thailand. 5 out of 6 weeks is a long time to be away from home, and I’m starting to feel the pressure on work levels a bit. All these ULTRACAM observations are for other people, with no scientific benefit to me or my PhD, just the experience. So why am I here?

Well, for one thing, I’ll never get bored of the view.

Looking South from the Roque.

Looking South from the Roque.

But the night shifts can get a little dull…

At the end of the day, I’m still learning things every time I come here, so it’s good for me in that sense. The travel can be exhausting, but catching up with old friends here, and taking advantage of the food, sea, sunshine and diving makes it worth it. I’ll be at sea-level for a few days between the two observing runs, and if I can finally shake off this blasted cold, I’ll be spending most of that time underwater.

For this current run, I’m the most experienced ULTRACAM observer, which puts me in charge of overseeing the mounting, problem solving, and observations. It’s pretty empowering being the go-to-guy (remember I’m still technically a 1st year PhD student!), but it’s also rather nerve-wracking. I can’t stop thinking I’ve been forgetting to do something really important!

Tonight’s big challenge is getting the best out of our observations of a transiting exoplanet, HAT-P-44b. The conditions aren’t perfect (variable seeing, a bit of cloud) and the object is so bright that we have to purposefully de-focus the telescope. This makes the auto-guiding less accurate, and the targets are jumping around a lot. We could reduce the exposure times, and improve the focus to improve the guiding, but the downside of this is that with the targets spread over less pixels, any errors we do have in position will have a greater effect. Tricky decisions! This is definitely my weakest skill in observing – making the scientific decisions about how to get the best data.

As I write this, the clouds are steadily creeping in, and any amount of cloud cover is really bad news for exoplanet transits. It could be a long, boring night!

Observations of HAT-P-44 so far tonight. For any non-experts, wobbly scatter is bad, and there's getting to be more and more of it...

Observations of HAT-P-44 so far tonight. For any non-experts, wobbly scatter is bad, a straight line would be ideal. Damn clouds!