January 2010


As Ann mentioned in the last post, the ALFALFA Undergraduate Workshop was taking place last week at Arecibo Observatory.  This was my first time attending the workshop, and I enjoyed the experience a lot – meeting various members of the ALFALFA Undergraduate Team and hearing about ongoing work.  One of the best parts was, of course, a tour of the telescope.  I have a feeling that every time I’m shown the telescope I’ll manage to learn something new.  Between the impressive engineering and long history that go into Arecibo, I think there will always be a new story to hear or new fact to learn.

I was part of the last tour group from the workshop that went up to the telescope platform.  They were planning on doing some radar tests once we were done with the tours.  When they want to run the radar, they have to place covers on all the other receivers on the telescope because enough power is transmitted through the radar that it would fry the other receivers.  Since, we were the last group visiting the receiver room up on the telescope platform, they started preparations while we were still up there.  First, they rotated the floor of the receiver room to move ALFA into place for putting the cover on.  We went down to look at the receivers and to see ALFA in person.  While there, we decided to help out by placing the cover on ALFA.  It took us a bit to figure out which way the cover fit on, but eventually we got it.  A few pictures of this process are below.

This week we’re holding the ALFALFA Undergraduate Team workshop on-site at the observatory, so there are about 30 ALFALFA team members roaming around. We have three nights of observing while we’re here, from 2 a.m. until 7:15 a.m., and at the moment I’m right in the middle of the first observing run. Most of the time, we observe remotely, from our office in Ithaca, so being here is always a different (and wonderful) experience. This time through, I’m particularly enjoying the amazing weather, since Ithaca has had some temperatures in the single digits and Arecibo is in the mid-70s, clear, sunny, and beautiful. If I had to choose just one thing, I’d say the best part is falling asleep and waking up with the windows open, a breeze coming through the room and the sound of coquis and other wildlife outside.

While we’re here, we’re taking a look at a part of the ALFALFA survey that includes some pretty interesting objects, and that was all part of our workshop observing proposal that was written by the dedicated team of undergraduates working on the survey, in particular Nicholas Crump, Steven Margell, and Tess Senty. We’ll cover part of the Leo Cluster of galaxies; Leo is an especially “rich” cluster, which is the term extragalactic astronomers use to describe clusters with many galaxies. Because there are so many galaxies in the cluster, and so many of them with lots of neutral hydrogen gas, the galaxies are interacting with each other and with the hot gas in between them. This can strip gas off of the galaxies, but it can also cause intense periods of star formation, making a cluster like Leo a very interesting place to learn about galaxy evolution.

Since this was our first night of observing for a while, I’m on a strange schedule; I got up as usual this morning, but after dinner tonight I slept from about 9 a.m. until 1 a.m. In the morning, some other ALFALFA observers might come in and relieve me around 5:30, at which point I’ll head back to my cabin and grab as much sleep as I can before I head in to the workshop. It can be a strange schedule, but the great thing about coming to Arecibo is that observing and working becomes your life, so you can tune everything else out and grab sleep whenever you get the chance!