Thursday, July 16, 2009

Getting my white dwarfs in a row

Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory
Image Credit: McDonald Observatory

Since returning from last weekend's teacher workshop, I've been working on planning observations with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the largest telescope at McDonald Observatory and one of the largest telescopes in the world.

Observing with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope works differently from the way astronomy has been done classically. Instead of going to the telescope and staying up all night taking data, we submit a list of observations we want to do over the web, and those data are taken by a staff astronomer in what we call "queue observing".

In queue observing, all of the requested observations are thrown into a single big list. These observing requests include coordinates of objects, the scientific instrument we want the data taken with, the weather conditions that we need (some observations can be done through thin clouds while others need clear skies; some need steady skies, while others can be done through slightly blurry skies; etc.), and the rankings that a project review committee gave each project. At night, the staff astronomer asks the computer for the next target, and a computer program looks at the current weather and which objects are currently observable, and then it picks the highest-ranked project and gives the staff astronomer the target information. The telescope is moved, the pictures are taken, and then the computer tells the astronomer where to go next.

This method of observing makes efficient use of the telescope. This is necessary at telescopes like the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, as its unique design severely limits where it can look and how long it can follow any one star or galaxy.

The drawback to this observing is that I'm not the one doing it. So I have to try and put together enough information that the staff astronomer knows exactly which star I want to look at and exactly how to do the observations. And I have to give them all of this information now, several weeks before the observations start, so the staff astronomers can feed all of the information into the computer, make sure they have all of the charts they need, and look for any holes in the sky where nobody asked for observations.

Last week, I learned that a project I proposed to use the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to look at white dwarfs was awarded time, and that the observing materials are due this weekend. I have about 40 targets, though probably only 10 or so will get looked at. But I don't care which of the 40 get looked at, so I send them all and hope that some of them fall into cracks where nobody else with a higher-ranked proposal is looking, and maybe I'll be able to get some extra observations.

So, I've been queuing up my white dwarfs. I filled out all of the paperwork, but I still need to make charts showing the staff astronomers which stars are mine. I'm going to try and get that done this evening so I can enjoy the weekend (which involves a special event at the observatory, which I'll talk about another day).

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