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A Night in the Life of an Astronomer

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

A Night in the Life of an Astronomer

Olivia Wilkins

The other night, I joined my friend Cam on an observing run. Cam is a fellow grad student and astrochemist, and he's studying Hot Jupiters, which are massive planets with properties similar to the gas-giant Jupiter in our own Solar System but have very short (i.e. less than 10 days) periods. They are very close to their respective stars, hence the word "hot" in their name. (In astronomy fields, the more we study the heavens, the more we realized the Solar System might just be the odd one out.)

 Keck Observatory (T. Wynne / JPL)

Keck Observatory (T. Wynne / JPL)

To study Hot Jupiters, Cam uses the NIRSPEC instrument on the Keck II Telescope at Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea. It can be used to observe wavelengths in the near-infrared (near-IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum at high resolutions. Without going into much detail, using the telescope—which we do remotely using four monitors on Caltech's campus as well as a webcam connection with telescope operators stationed at Mauna Kea—requires that we point to a star and collect its near-IR spectrum (its electromagnetic signal) while moving the telescope slightly back-and-forth. We do this for a couple of star systems per observing night, after which Cam goes back and extracts the spectrum of the planet (in his case, a Hot Jupiter) to learn more about it. When we observe, we observe the planet and star together through Earth's atmosphere, so Cam needs to subtract the star's and Earth's atmosphere' (called telluric) spectra to isolate that of the planet.

For those astronomers who stay up all night (e.g. Cam), how do you spend your time while staying up until 7:30 in the morning after putting in a day at the office? For Keck, we record information in the observing log every 10 minutes or so and click a button, but we have to keep ourselves entertained in between those times. How? I kept track. Here's the run-down:

~17:00-19:00. Cam sets up for the observation. I'm at home, trying to rest ("Nice try, Mom," says Günther).

19:00-20:30. Cam collects snacks. I continue my futile attempts to rest. I cut up watermelon and rinse grapes to keep me going over the long night ahead.

20:40. Cam and I meet to walk to Cahill together. We both have shopping bags full of snacks. We compare. Both of us brought an assortent of fruit and chocolate-covered things (cookies, pretzels).

20:50. We arrive at the observing room in Cahill to find an empty Dove chocolate wrapper on the whiteboard marker holder. It says, "Stay up past your bedtime." Fitting.

21:00. Cam runs flats as we wait for the sun to set on Mauna Kea. Running flats means we run the telescope and observe nothing. This way, if there are any instrument quirks, we can subtract them out of the data. This allows us to analyze the data alone rather than the data and any weird things coming from the telescope.

21:30. Our advisor calls. He asks what snacks we have. He knows us well.

21:47. Let the snacking begin!

22:04. Cam points the telescope toward a standard star, HIP99719 and runs tests. He doesn't actually use standards, but... just in case?

22:12. I decide to document Cam stargazing:
22:29. Switch telescope to HD187123. This is Cam's planet (not that he told me 20 times or anything....)!

22:30. "Oh, we probably shouldn't jump because they can still see us even if they can't hear us." —Cam, after jumping up and down excitedly after muting the webcam microphone that allows us to communicate with the operators on Mauna Kea.

00:49. Switch telescope to HD189733 after two hours of chatting and Cam pushing buttons while I record when he pushes said buttons. I've also been working on my report for candidacy.

02:37. We get deep around 3:00 a.m. and think about how to fix the world's problems. We have not come up with a solution.

03:09. Switching to a standard next to a really bright star. Again, we don't use standards anyway. Time well spent.
 We're looking at the thing on the right. The really bright thing on the left is what we don't want to see.

We're looking at the thing on the right. The really bright thing on the left is what we don't want to see.

03:20. "Did you write that down?" Cam asks. I nod. He gives me a huge grin and double thumbs up. Cam is so proud. I am awesome.

03:24. Seriously, Keck Operator? Country music!? It's too early for this crap....

03:41. Turning to 51Peg.

03:45. WHY ISN'T IT WORKING!?!?!?

03:49. *Frantically try to figure out how to dial out of the observing room.*

03:52. Shout-out to Dickinson Phonathon for teaching me how to dial out on an institute telephone.

03:57. Cam got it working!!! (Thanks, Geoff, for answering our call!)

04:05. Good news, it wasn't our fault. (Stupid computer....)

04:26. How do we get a selfie with all four monitors?
 Three-ish monitors, Cam's laptop, and the printer? FAIL.

Three-ish monitors, Cam's laptop, and the printer? FAIL.

04:29. Something crashed, but we're not even using it (???).

04:31. The country music has gotten louder...

04:36. "I called my advisor at like, 3:50 in the morning...."

04:40... and even louder....
04:52. We decide to showcase some of the poses of observational astronomy. OMG I AM DELIRIOUS. SECOND WIND HAS DIED.
05:04. We just got into an argument about who gets to copy and paste lines in the observation log.

05:58. The advisor has arrived!

06:28. We are talking about dog psychology.

06:59. Tired me asked question and accidentally signed up to learn how to do something before advisor meeting next week. Bracing for poorly set-up telescope websites to fail me.

07:03. FREEDOM! 07:30. Time for a 3-hour nap before meetings at noon. (WHYYYYY!?)