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!