Monday, April 14, 2008

traveling and telescopes

Last week American Airlines had to cancel a couple thousand flights due to mechanical issues. Many people who were supposed to fly (like me) ended up staying home. I personally know people who missed out on weddings and important meetings because of all of the chaos. Airlines can be sorry all they want, but when people miss events like weddings and funerals, there's no way to apologize properly.

Anyway, what happens to astronomers who miss a flight to a telescope? Telescope time is a rare commodity for many astronomers. A few nights a year at a large telescope is enough to keep most observers gainfully employed. Telescope nights are typically scheduled 6 months in advance, and there is almost no flexibility in the schedules of most telescopes. So, what happens if you can't get there?

For most telescopes, the astronomer is out of luck. Often the astronomer is solely responsible for the telescope; if there is a telescope operator, that person is quite knowledgeable about the telescope and the mechanics, but would not be able (or willing) to do an astronomer's observations for her. For that reason, many astronomers (myself included) travel a day or more early to the telescope. The extra night can be used to settle in and to start to get on a night schedule.

I've had to use that extra day several times, especially when I fly to South America. If I miss my connection, or the intercontinental flight is delayed for 12 hours (which happens quite a bit!), there is no option -- I'm going to arrive 24 hours later. It is awful to hop off of a 7000 mile plane trip and then stay up all night, but some times it has to be done.

In some cases, observatories are set up for "remote observing," where the astronomer can be thousands of miles away and observe over the internet. This runs risks, such as the internet going down, but some people prefer that risk to travel, and sometimes it can't be helped.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all air traffic was stopped for several days. At least one astronomer in California had time on the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, but obviously wasn't able to get there. So, he drove from Pasadena up to Santa Cruz, where there was a room that was set up with all kinds of cameras and computers for observing, and he was able to use the telescope quite successfully.

But few observatories offer remote observing. It is expensive and time-intensive to set up (although it can pay for itself in very little time), and it brings new technical challenges. How can astronomers know they are getting high-quality data, if those data will take hours to transmit across even the fastest internet? Without the ability to step outside, how can the astronomer know what the weather (specifically cloud cover) is like? And are the telescope operators willing to take the extra training they would need to troubleshoot bad internet and other issues that the astronomer would normally take care of? These problems are more difficult than they sound, but they are not impossible to solve. The number of telescopes with remote operations capabilities continues to grow, albeit slowly.

For telescopes withot remote operations, however, not arriving at the telescope means no data. Sometimes you may have a friend you can call to do you a big favor ("Hey Bob, you weren't doing anything tonight anyway. How about staying up and taking data for me?") It's a chance we take, just like the chance with the weather. Often you can request new time at the telescope, and the committees that assign time will take bad weather or travel problems into account (provided that the problem is severe -- missing several nights because of poor planning does not endear one to these committees). But there is no guarantee that you will ever get that telescope time again -- maybe someone else will do the project first at another telescope, or maybe the science you propose to do loses its luster. And, often you have to wait an entire year for more telescope time, because most stars are only visible at certain times of the year.

So, when an airline grounds over half of its fleet, astronomers can be in quite a pickle, too. Like everyone else, we wring our hands, blow steam out of our ears, and deal with the consequences.

No comments:

Post a Comment