Thursday, June 21, 2007

Doing the tourist thing

As I mentioned yesterday, I have my summer observing class at McDonald Observatory in west Texas for the next week. Since many of the students have not been here before, I am taking the students around to many of the telescopes here at the observatory. Today we visited the 2.7-meter telescope, where astronomer Gary Hill took time to show off his baby, a spectrograph called VIRUS-p.

VIRUS-p is an instrument that is a prototype for a new camera being designed for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. This camera will take spectroscopic images of over a million galaxies in just a few years of operation, and allow astronomers to map out the universe and, hopefully, understand a little bit about "Dark Energy," the mysterious force that is causing the Universe to expand at ever-increasing speeds.

In order to get information on millions of galaxies in a short amount of time, lots of new technology is being used, so we want to test it before spending 35 million dollars on an unproven concept. And VIRUS-p is working extraordinarily well.

Today we also survived several thunderstorms with a lot of lightning. It's always a little scary to be on top of a mountain during a thunderstorm. Lightning likes to hit the tallest thing around, and when we are in a large metal building on top of a mountain, we're that tallest object! But the thunderstorms passed, and now it is a very clear night for the students to gather data.

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