Getting too attached to your work.

When observing with telescopes, a fairly fundamental requirement is that the telescope dome is open. This will also mean that whoever is inside the dome, will be exposed to the elements, which may require some special precautions. In particular if you are observing in the colder parts of the world. Like, for instance, Poland.

The winters in Poland can get quite cold indeed. But this will not hold back the dedicated astronomer from braving the elements to get some much needed observing done. This was the case during a particularly cold night at the observatory, where the guiding of the telescope is done manually, by looking through an eyepiece. As astronomical exposures are often rather long, this eager scientist had to guide the telescope during the full 30min exposure he was performing.

Having secured the exposure, the observer no doubt wanted to celebrate this, by getting back inside in the warm, and have a nice, steaming hot cup of coffee (I know I’d want that!). However, when the poor man tried to leave the telescope, he found that this was in fact, impossible to do, without leaving behind a significant amount of skin from around his eye. Anyone who watched “Dumb and Dumber”, can likely imagine the general concept of what had happened…

Luckily for this guy, he had quite some acrobatic skills, and very flexible body parts, so after fiddling around for a while, he managed to unscrew the entire eyepiece and carry it with him inside, resting it on a table for another 15 minutes, before the entire thing had defrosted and could be removed from his eyebrow.

This amount of dedication and attachment to your work is rarely seen and definitely deserves sharing with the world.

Signal lost!

When doing observations, it sometimes happens that things just won’t collaborate, one way or the other, making it impossible to get any good data. This is true for all areas of astronomy, where you can have clouds, high water vapor, light pollution, radio frequency interference or equipment malfunction of various sorts. Sometimes the reasons for not getting observations are tricky, but in other cases they are fairly obvious… Or so you would think.

Doing a pulsar survey one night at the Parkes Observatory, an undergrad student observer doesn’t seem to be getting any good data from the 64m radio telescope. In fact, he’s not even getting bad data, he’s getting no data at all. As much as it is annoying getting bad data, getting zero data is just immensely frustrating. The bad data would at least get you something that could potentially be useful. But having gone through all the planning and work associated with observations, for zero gain, is just painful.

After long hours that no doubt involved pulling out hairs and being frustrated, the relief, which happens to be the supervisor of the undergrad student, enters the observing tower at 4am. He’d apparently been keeping an eye out for things on the ground on the way there, as he had found a receiver lying on the ground outside. His immediate reaction was along the lines of “Huh, I wonder what that’s doing here? I better pick that up and bring it in with me.” The receiver was then brought to the control room, after which the supervisor continued to try and get some observations going, with very limited success.

At sunrise, one of the staff members arrive, to meet what was no doubt a very frustrated astronomer, who had not gotten any useful data at all that night. Upon seeing the receiver in the control room, he casually pointed out that there was a very nice receiver-shaped hole in the radio dish. In fact, it looked suspiciously like the receiver the supervisor had picked up during the night, would fit exactly there. Which of course provided an immediate explanation as to why no data was received. One can only wonder, why this had not come to mind earlier. I suppose it’s like when you are looking for your glasses while already wearing them. You just don’t see what’s right in front of you.

The Parkes Radio Telescope from the air Credit: Shaun Amy, CSIRO

The Parkes Radio Telescope from the air. Credit: Shaun Amy, CSIRO

Apparently, the receiver had recently been changed, and whoever was putting the receiver in, had not tightened the bolts sufficiently, so as the telescope was turning, the receiver had gotten loose and fallen to the ground. I suppose that the lesson here is: If you find a fairly essential piece of your instrument in a weird place, that might be a good place to start, when trying to figure out why nothing is working. In addition to that, some safety advice; Always wear a hard hat when observing. Even if in the middle of nowhere, with no tall things around, you never know what might hit you.

Shake it, baby

At the 2.5m Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain, efforts had been ongoing to improve the performance of the FIES spectrograph so that improved radial velocity measurements could be made.  This would hopefully lead to a higher success rate in the detection of exoplanets, as well as other areas of astronomy, requiring accurate measurements of the motions of stars.

One way to improve the accuracy is to ensure that the light entering the spectrograph, and hits the spectrograph grating, is as uniform as possible. If you have a spectrograph that is fed by an optical fiber, like FIES, it will usually suffer from modal noise which creates a speckle-pattern of the light hitting the grating. This pattern depends both on how the light enters the fiber and on the wavelength on the light itself. So, in other words, you do not have a uniform light. There are many ways of getting rid of this speckle pattern, most of which are referred to as “scrambling”. One way of achieving scrambling is to shake the fiber while you are observing your star. This will mean that the speckle pattern moves around and is effectively “smeared out”, resulting in a more uniform illumination of the instrument.

Always striving to make the most of their instrument, it was decided to implement a fiber shaker, with the expectation that this would be an efficient way to improve FIES. However, fiber shakers are not exactly off-the-shelf items,  so as the true entrepreneurs they are, the staff decided to build their own fiber shaker. After all, building something that shakes back and forth is not exactly rocket science.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Photo Credit: Nordic Optical Telescope

Since the Nordic Optical Telescope is run by the Scandinavian countries, there was very little choice, really, as to what materials should be used to build the fiber shaker prototype. Staying true to the favourite building blocks of any sensible person from the Nordic countries, a shaking mechanism was quickly constructed out of LEGO, and set to work at the telescope. LEGO being as awesome as it is, this fiber shaker actually improved the performance, but unfortunately the shaker had to be decommissioned after a few weeks, as the person in charge (aka the instrument scientist’s son) demanded his toys back. It also turned out that although LEGO is great, it isn’t quite sturdy enough for prolonged use as a fiber shaking mechanism.

It was naturally disappointing that the shaker had to be taken out of use after such a short period of time, but these kind of setbacks are not something that kills the spirit of an instrument scientist. It merely represent a challenge to come up with a better solution. So once again, the staff was off hunting a shaking, vibrating contraption, to replace the LEGO scrambler. This did not take long, since people apparently have all sorts of things stashed away in attics and basements.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version. Note the essential duct tape, holding the optical fiber in place. Photo credit: Nordic Optical Telescope.

Meet the fiber shaker prototype 2: Bigger, better, sturdier. An item more commonly known as a foot massager, but now enjoying a life as an integral part of  a modern-day telescope. That gotta be more exciting than retirement, or massaging people’s smelly feet! At the time of writing, the foot massager is still sitting comfortably in the dome of the Nordic Optical Telescope.

In related news, the staff at the Wendelstein Observatory outside of Munich, Germany, implemented a low-frequency fiber shaker, built from the car-wipe engine from an old car belonging to one of the observatory staff members. When the fiber optics specialists at one point asked in horror; “But aren’t you worried that you will damage the optical fiber with all this shaking?” the instrument scientist replied; “Well… a while back, someone forgot to turn the wiper engine off, so we had it running continuously for more than a month, and the fiber was just fine. So no, we’re not overly concerned about that.”

Due to the ingenuity of engineers and scientists such as these, functional solutions are made with whatever equipment they have in hand. Best part? It often works! And after all, being able to claim that a foot massager is an important part of an astronomical instrument, is rather cool, really.

Welcome to Astro Anecdotes

Astronomy; The world of beautiful images of spectacular pieces of our universe, which never ceases to amaze. The world of Hubble Deep Field, The Pillars of Creation, Planets, Black Holes, Galaxies, you name it.

Also the world of mind-blowing discoveries made by highly trained scientists, unraveling  new aspects of our world. gravitational lensing, supernova explosions, the expanding universe, exoplanets and a never ending list of impressive scientific discoveries.

This is how most people know astronomy and astrophysics. But astronomy is also a world of ad hoc solutions, bizzare fixes using whatever was available at the time, “discoveries” and strange incidents in remote corners of the world. Stories that are normally just passed around by word of mouth. This site is an attempt to collect and publish these stories, showing “the other side” of astrophysics, which will hopefully make you both laugh and think.

The site could not have happened without the input from a large number of people in astronomy, who were willing to share their experiences, or point me to places where I could aquire more details about some of the stories. This has made the project so much more fun! Your contributions, from small corrections to some stories, to elaborate details and photos from others, has helped get this project off the ground. I couldn’t have done it without you. I am excited and grateful for this, and hope that you will all continue to share your stories. Thank you all, you people are awesome! To the rest of you there’s just left to say;

Welcome to Astro Anecdotes.