Blogging about Pan-STARRS

The Pan-STARRS 1 dome at sunrise. Photo Credit: Rob Ratkowski, PS1SC

So for the last year I’ve been involved in exploiting data from the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope. PS1 is the first telescope of the larger Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) project to survey the sky constantly searching for asteroids that may pose a threat to the Earth. The data from PS1 will also be used to do a whole range of diverse science from the icy bodies of the Kuiper Belt, to probing the dark energy which is though to make up over 70% of the Universe.

So as well as chasing brown dwarfs in the data I’ve also been involved in setting up a blog for the PS1 Science Consortium. The PS1SC are the universities and research institutes who have access to PS1 data. The idea of the blog is to provide an outlet for PS1 scientists and technical personnel to write about the science they are doing and how the survey is progressing. Hopefully this will lead to a comprehensive, popular outline of what PS1 is, how it works and the groundbreaking research being done with it. Have a look at the blog, spread the word around and if there’s something you’d like to know about PS1 or if you have thoughts about the blog then please reply in the comments thread of this post.

Observatory life

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Hello again from the top of Mauna Kea. It’s night 5 of my 7 night run using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and it’s all going pretty smoothly so far. The main effect of the altitude on me so far is sneezing, which I am doing with annoying frequency. If you want to find out more about what I’m doing up here check out my first mountain post here.

This is the JCMT, taken with the camera on my phone (ensuring it was in airplane-safe mode so it didn’t interfere with any observations). Annoyingly for you, I forgot the cable to transfer photos from my digital camera to my laptop so you’re all stuck with the slighly more rubbish ones. Yesterday the telescope operator took me up on the roof to look at the view, and we walked round the overhanging walkway.

The JCMT lives in Submillimeter Valley, which is below the ridge where the optical and infrared telescopes are. This gives me the ideal opportunity to take odd photos featuring me and the Subaru (left) and one of the two Keck (right) telescopes:

The telescope control room is a pretty relaxed place. Modern telescopes like the JCMT are so complex that astronomers like me aren’t allowed to move them ourselves. All we have to do is pick the next thing to look at and then the Telescope Operator does all the hard work. However, since each observation takes up to an hour to complete there’s lots of time for doing other things like blogging or watching Andy Murray in the Australian Open Final. We even got a mention on the BBC!

I’m aiming to do one more mountain post on my last night (tiredness permitting), in which I’ll try and explain more about the science I’m trying to do up here. Well, that or I’ll just post some more photos!

Hello from the mountain

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It’s just past 4am Hawaiian time (about 2pm GMT) on my first night of observing and I need something to help me stay awake so I’m writing this post. I’m at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JMCT) on Mauna Kea, 13,796 ft above sea level. Becuase it’s so high, being up here is pretty difficult – you can really feel the lack of oxygen and you have to be constantly on the alert for the symptoms of altitude sickness. Mainly I’m trying not to move around too much! The control room of the JCMT, where I sit, rotates with the telescope so every now and then it starts rocking. It’s a bit disconcerting but I think I’m getting used to it. The biggest problem is that the toilet moves as it’s on the non-moving floor downstairs, and it can take a while to find it!

I’m here to map the clouds of molecular hydrogen in 50 nearby galaxies using the HARP-B instrument. However, this gas is really difficult to detect directly so what I’m actually measuring is carbon monoxide, which tends to hang out in the same clouds.

People are only allowed to spend 14 hours out of every 24 up here at the summit, so we all stay at a dormitory complex called Hale Pohaku down at 9,300 ft. It takes about 40 minutes to drive up to the summit, mainly because the first section of the road isn’t paved. We didn’t come up to the telescope until 7:30pm tonight so it was already dark when we set off, meaning we had a beautiful view of the night sky all the way. I was also lucky enough to see the zodiacal light, which comes from sunlight reflecting off dust in the Solar System. You need a very dark site, with no moon or light pollution to get a glimpse of it because it’s so faint. I didn’t have the right camera to get a photo of it myself but the picture on the left, taken at an observatory in Chile, shows it well.

When we reached the summit, most of the other telescopes up here had already opened up and started working. This meant that I got to see the Keck artificial guide star laser, that I’ve blogged about before, shooting up into the sky.

It’s nearly 5:30am now so I’d better wrap this up before I get too tired to write straight. I’ll be up here for another 2.5 hours tonight, and then for the next 6 nights after that, so this probably isn’t the last post from the mountain. If you’ve got any questions about what’s it’s like up here please leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in as coherent a way as possible!

Astro-cameras at the ready!

The 2011 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition was launched yesterday by the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The 2010 competition produced some wonderful images and worthy winners and I’m sure the same will be true this year.

It’s really easy to enter. All you have to do is upload your photos to the competitions Flickr group. There are lots of categories ranging from the Solar System to Deep Space. There’s also a new category this year for photos taken with publicly available robotic telescopes, so you don’t even have to have your own camera to take part! However, if you do want some tips on how to get started with astrophotography check out Miller’s guest post.

I know things have been a bit quiet around here over the past few weeks. I’m off to Hawaii tomorrow to use the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (it’s the central building in the photo below) so I’m hoping to do some blogging from there. I’m supposed to be looking for sites of star formation in nearby galaxies, but the weather’s been terrible on the mountain recently (snow, ice & fog) so I might have more free time than I think!

Image credit: A. Woodcraft

Happy New Year from the Gutter!

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For the first time since we started this blog, all four of us were in the same room together over the weekend. Well, when I say weekend, I mean New Year. And when I say room, I mean castle (we’ve had to give the castle back now sadly!)

We thought this would be an ideal opportunity to take our first ever group photo. However, this is what we ended up with:

from left to right: Emma, Stuart, Rita & Niall

taken during the middle portion of Total Eclipse of the Heart, which is an astronomical reference at least.

Anyway, what we really wanted to say was Happy New Year to all our readers! Thanks for visiting during 2010; please come back during 2011. If you’re very good, Stuart might even post something!