November 2011


This posting is by Lauren Bearden and the Colgate UAT who spent Thanksgiving conducting the A2010 observing on site at the Arecibo Observatory.

November 22, 2011

Greetings from Arecibo Observatory! The Colgate University Astronomy community is so happy to be here in Puerto Rico over Thanksgiving break with Professor Tom Balonek as a part of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team. Our group includes senior Ajay Chahar (Physics), juniors Michael Fusco (Astrogeophysics), Danny Roesler (Astronomy-Physics), and Katie Iadanza (Astronomy-Phsyics), and sophomores Lauren Bearden (Astronomy-Physics) and Kevin McCullough (Physics) of Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. We are all enrolled in Astronomy 212: Observational Techniques with Professor Balonek this semester. And so our story begins…

After a long night of trying to finish up our schoolwork before the break, we met at Colgate’s Hall of Presidents, bags packed, and ready to go. The ride to Syracuse airport was snug in Katie’s minivan, but went smoothly, and before we knew it we were on the plane headed to JFK airport. Once we got to JFK, we had a delicious multi-ethnic lunch of donuts, lo mein, pad thai, pizza, and Stromboli. Once we got to Puerto Rico, we got picked up by a “Taxi Turistico” and went grocery shopping, buying anything we could find that didn’t require microwavable cooking or complicated preparations. This turned out to be just about soup, chips, bread, cold cuts, cereal, and juice. After arriving in the town of Arecibo, we stopped for dinner at Martin’s Barbecue and got some local food: rice, beans, chicken, and pork. We finally made it to the observatory around 9:30 local time (that’s Atlantic Standard Time, AST = UT-4). We got settled into our rooms in the North VSQ (Visiting Science Quarters), and immediately set off to look around. After a leisurely ten minute walk to the control room, we met students from Siena College who told us a little about what they were doing (and what we would be doing) [see their earlier blog]. We went down to the road that circles the dish to look around, but couldn’t see much because it was so dark. Oh, how we can’t wait until daylight tomorrow to really appreciate the immense size of the telescope. Then, we went back to our rooms, and immediately fell asleep after a long day of travel. Co-QUI!

November 23, 2011

We met up around 10:00 and went on a tour of the platform and dome of the telescope, given by engineer (and pro tour guide) Dana Whitlow. We spent about two and a half hours looking around, asking questions, and learning how a radio telescope actually works from Dana. At first, we were a bit intimidated by the elevation of the catwalk, especially when it was slanted halfway through, but we eventually learned not to let the height get to us, and ended up learning so much. We took tons of pictures… in fact Professor Balonek managed to take over 2,000. We then got some lunch and after a short rest, went back up the hill to look around the visitor center. We were sad that the gift store was closed, but the stations at the museum were interesting and we took many more pictures. Later, we talked to telescope operator Israel Cabrera for a pretty long time in the control room. He told us some great stories of his experiences at the Observatory. He told us about the different people he’s met by working here, how much he’s learned from the visitors, and about his own personal astronomical technology that he keeps at his home. Talking over coffee (Puerto Rican coffee, of course) really does have a way of bringing two groups from different backgrounds together; he was so friendly and willing to share his stories, Israel probably could’ve talked to anyone easily. We went up to the computer rooms after that and practiced starting up the telescope control program (CIMA) for tomorrow night. We made our cheat sheets and after a little more practice tomorrow, will be quick and ready to observe for Martha. We’re so excited!

Some shots of the control room can be seen at this link recommended by Israel entitled “hardworking pulsar astronomers at Arecibo” during an observing run by Dan Stinebring and his students from Carleton College.

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! Though not with our immediate families, the Colgate community was sure to have our own feast here on the picnic tables behind our rooms at Arecibo with our “observing family” as Mike called it. We had a great lunch of Turkey sandwiches, Lays and Tostitos chips, guava and cranberry juice, and pumpkin and apple pie. It was, by far, the most unique Thanksgiving I’ve ever had, with minimal preparation and no football game in the background. We then went up to the control room and continued working on perfecting the start up process of observing. We finally got control of the telescope around 6 pm, and after a successful start up by Danny, we got into the rhythm of recording the observations. Observing was fun, especially because looking at and identifying the spectral lines was new to a lot of us. While observing, we noticed the spike in our spectrum from the FAA radar network and the corresponding harmonic frequency from San Juan. We also saw a major signal from galactic HI. Professor Balonek was sure to point out quasars (continuum sources) every once in awhile, also. We learned how to save and transfer the data after observations. We knew that Martha would be checking our results early the next morning.

November 25, 2011

The gift shop was finally open today! We got pina coladas at the stand on the way up the steep hill, hotdogs, ice cream, and lots of presents for people at home. We eventually went up to the Observatory, worked for a while, and then started observing. Awhile after Katie’s successful start up, Danny noticed a galaxy in the spectra! After looking online based on the RA and dec, we identified it as NGS 925! So naturally, we did a celebratory dance. We realized just how much data we were taking, and also how much the survey as a whole would gather total… 56000 data points are taken per second in ten minute scans (with 1 second between scans to calibrate), 6 hours or so of scanning per night, and 4 nights of scanning. But that’s just our data! The survey has been going like this for 6 years! That’s about 3,000,000,000,000 data points! It’s so amazing to be part of such of an important and broad study.

November 26, 2011

We woke up at the crack of dawn (which equates to 11 am for astronomers) and decided it was a great day to explore the surrounding area. We began this endeavor by going way down under the dish, and going up to the towers onsite. We were amazed at how the dish was held into place in its spherical shape by primarily just the tie-downs. The towers were enormous and we enjoyed the hike up and down the hills, though we came back sweating and ready to collapse. WE HAD BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN COLLAPSE, THOUGH! We ventured out into the town of Arecibo in search of some more groceries. On the way, we happened upon a local restaurant, where the food was delicious, but didn’t sit very well in our stomachs. We went straight up to the control room after we returned and began work. We had a successful start up by Kevin, and continued our research throughout the night. At this point, we pretty much know how to handle the computer and know what to look out for in the spectrum on the control screen of the data we’ve taken. One thing that we realized tonight is that the red error messages that have come up the past 2 nights have always happened at 00:00:00 UT time. Because the message never actually affects the images, and it happens at the exact same time every night, we think this might be an error in the computer system, rather than an error with the machinery, and therefore is not something for us to worry about too much. Another successful night complete! Coqui, coqui.

November 27, 2011

Today, our last full day in Puerto Rico, we went to the beach. The weather was beautiful, the waves were big, and we had a great time swimming and enjoying the weather and scenery. We got some local pizza on the way home, which was delicious. Then, we went up to the control room for our last night of observing. Because we’ve been observing for the past few nights, tonight we were able to start up and shut down the operating system almost entirely without the instruction of Professor Balonek. This was fairly exciting, and a confirmation that we are in fact learning. Tonight was also unusual because the FAA radar signals were higher in some of the quicklooks randomly. We noted these changes in our log. The way that we work our observing is that we ordinarily have three students in the control room: one typing in the information from the calibrations and exposures, one checking the quicklooks, and a third person there for company. We did an excellent job of switching in and out of these positions tonight. I guess the 4th night is a charm for us…

Tomorrow we head back to Colgate. While we’re all happy to go back to school (though dreading final papers and exams coming up), we’ll most certainly always remember the time we spent here in Puerto Rico, learning all we can about radio astronomy. WE HOPE TO BE BACK AGAIN SOON!

This posting is by Martha Haynes, thanks to the UAT at Siena College.

While most of the observing for ALFALFA is conducted remotely, it is a lot more impressive to do the observing from the Arecibo control room. For one thing, you can’t really appreciate just how big the Arecibo antenna is until you walk around and underneath it and take a trip up to the platform. Even at night, you can see the lights of the towers and the platform from the control room, and so you get a better sense of just how immense and complex the whole telescope system is. You also get to interact with the telescope operator, hear the sounds of the motors (and the coquis) and watch even more monitors. Fortunately, members of the Undergraduate ALFALFA team do get to travel to Arecibo to experience for themselves the awesome site of the “Big Dish in the Jungle”.

The ALFALFA observations on Nov 21-22, 2011 were conducted on site by 6 students and 2 faculty members from Siena College. The students were Laura Apicello and Amy McCann (junior physics majors), Alissa Earle and Thad Savery (junior Physics and Math majors) and Ian Gilchrest and Steve Atkinson (senior physics majors). The faculty were Rose Finn and Michele McColgan; it was Michele’s first trip to Arecibo too. The students were all enrolled in an observational astronomy class Physics 380 and had learned about and conducted remote observations for ALFALFA prior to travelling to Arecibo. They arrived in Puerto Rico on Sun Nov 20th. While at the Observatory, they stayed in the VSQ “family units” at the top of one of the hills on site. These units have three beds, one bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen.

The students were asked to comment on some of their impressions, and here are some of their answers:

What were you first impressions when you arrived in Puerto Rico?

  • Laura writes “The weather in Puerto Rico was the first thing I experienced when I arrived. It was very hot and humid as we came out of the airport. On our car ride to the Observatory, we drove through some of the more populated area and were soon traveling through the more rural areas. There were a lot of hills and valleys that we passed through and a lot of animals.”
  • Thad writes “The landscape is what I first noticed. The country is filled with hills throughout, rather than being relatively flat with an occasional mountain here and there. Also, for being a territory of the United States it is extremely different from any place I have been in the U.S. from the structure of the homes, to the way streets are organized.”
  • Alissa writes “This is my second time coming down to Arecibo (I was here for the UAT workshop in January). The major differences this time are that we are staying up in the family units this time, a part of the observatory I didn’t get a chance to explore during my last visit, and we have had more down time to wonder around the observatory and visit the city of Arecibo.”

What are your impressions of the Arecibo telescope?

  • Alissa writes “Even though it is my second time down here I am still amazed by just how huge the telescope is.”
  • Thad writes “The immense scale of the telescope. I knew it was big, but seeing it in person makes you wonder who came up with this design and how has it stood the test of time and is still up and running with few problems.”
  • Laura writes “The telescope was larger than I expected. Being able to go under the dish and onto the platform gave us a better idea of the make up of the telescope. We were able to go inside the Gregorian dome and see the secondary and tertiary mirrors. We also had the opportunity to see the ALFA detector.”

What are your impressions of the Observatory overall?

  • Alissa writes “I really enjoy the scenery at the observatory and enjoyed working in the control room and hiking under the dish.”
  • Laura writes “The control room and telescope were very impressive. The area was very nice and the scenery was great. It was very peaceful and remote to be staying the the cabin located in the observatory.”

What are your impressions of the observing for ALFALFA? Is it what you expected?

  • Laura writes: “Since we had done the remote observing during our lab, I knew what to expect when observing the ALFALFA Survey. Doing the observing in the actual control room was much more exciting.”
  • Alissa writes: “It has been pretty similar to my experience last time, but since it is a smaller group and we have longer runs we have all been able to have more hands on time while observing.”

What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you have learned while you’ve been on this trip?

  • Thad writes: “The tour of the elevated part of the telescope was both the most exciting and most surprising thing we did and learned about. Our tour guide gave us an in depth description of how the telescope worked, while we were on it. I was terrified for a while since we were so high up, but it was an experience I will never forget. Both the experience and the information we learned while on the telescope was definitely the most interesting part of this trip.”
  • Laura writes: “The size of the radio telescope was something that surprised me on this trip. Not until I was able to be in close contact with the telescope was I able to put the telescope into scale.”
  • Alissa writes: “It has been interesting staying in the VSQ “family units” this time because they are made of plywood (with no insulation) and the windows just have screens and shutters with no glass. It is really different from anything you would see in upstate New York.”

The chance to visit and conduct observing on site really does make bring the Arecibo telescope and Observatory into perspective! Members of the Undergraduate ALFALFA team are grateful to the National Science Foundation and their respective institutions for the funding support which makes possible these observing trips and to the Arecibo Observatory staff for their assistance and hospitality. Thanks especially to Dana Whitlow for the platform tour!