Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Camelopardalids Dissapointment

Last time I mentioned I and friend from work were heading up to Mauna Loa to try to catch a possible new meteor shower, the Camelopardalids. The reason I decided on Mauna Loa rather than Mauna Kea is because the radiant of the Camelopardalids was going to be in the constellation of Camelopardalus (the Giraffe), which is right up close to the north celestial pole. The Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea, however, is on the south side of the mountain, meaning the mountain would block out most of our view to the north. Thus, I decided to head up to 11,000 feet on Mauna Loa to the observatories there, which are on the south side.

Getting up to Mauna Loa is an arduous process. Unlike Mauna Kea, with its two-lane paved road to 9,000 feet, Mauna Loa has only a single lane road (though as of two years ago, it is at least paved its entire way). It's over twice as long as its Mauna Kea cousin and winds like a roller coaster for most of its length, so that although the grade is on average much less, you just can't get any speed up with all the twists and turns. Thus it took us almost a full hour to get from Saddle Road to 11,000 feet where we set up just a few minutes before 8 PM when the shower was projected to begin.

Unfortunately, the meteor shower didn't happen. We stayed up for nearly two full hours (the projected time for the shower), and in that entire time I saw three meteors, all of which were random and unrelated to the shower. In my time working at the Visitor Information Center I spent many an evening outside, and three meteors is an entirely typical number to see in that time. From what I've read, no one else really saw anything either. There was one report of people seeing a larger number of meteors than normal, but nothing that would really stand out, and they were offset by the large number of reports similar to mine: nothing out of the ordinary.

Oh, well. In science a null result can often be just as interesting – if not more so – than a positive one. We've learned something, and the theorists will have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what. It wasn't the spectacular shower I was hoping for, but if I'm honest it's much closer to what I was expecting (though I was expecting at least a few meteors). It may not have been “the great meteor shower of ‘14,” but there's always next time. Speaking of which, a hui hou!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

(Shooting) Star Warnings: A New Shower

I've been asked a few times this week about "the big meteor shower on Friday," but truth be told, I hadn't paid it much attention. I don't usually pay much attention to meteor showers, partly because they've always felt like an established part of the cycle of things – if I miss the Perseids this year, I can always catch them again next year, after all.

I changed my tune a bit when I came across an article this morning describing tonight's shower as a new shower. It's supposed to come about from the comet 209P/LINEAR, and will be supposedly the first time the earth will come in contact with the cast-off streams of debris this old comet sloughed off on every trip around between 1803 and 1924. (The comet has an orbital period of 5.09 years, which suggests it took about 24.8 trips around this sun in that time.)

Anyway, the salient point is that according to calculations there should be a shower of meteors from 209P/LINEAR between 6 and 8 UTC May 24th. This works out to be a very nice 8-10PM the previous (Friday) night here in Hawai'i; for the West Coast it'll be 11PM Friday night through 1AM Saturday morning; and for the East Coast it'll be 2-4AM.

The interesting thing is that this shower is calculated to be visible almost exclusively from North America and Hawai'i. This is partly due to the fact that its radiant – the location on the sky which all the meteor trails trace back to, and from which they all appear to radiate from – is in the far-northern constellation Camelopardalis. Following the tradition for naming meteor showers, the new showed has thus been termed the Camelopardalids.

Camelopardalis (meaning "giraffe") is a fairly modern constellation (created in 1612 or 1613) made up of a number of faint stars very close to the north celestial pole. It borders upon Ursa Minor, which contains Polaris, the North Star. Finding Camelopardalis will be rather difficult if you have any kind of light pollution system, but luckily since the radiant is so close to Polaris you can locate it to a good approximation by simply facing north. Although, it should be noted, sometimes it's better to watch a meteor shower by facing away from the radiant so that you catch the meteors that glance through the atmosphere (and thus produce long impressive trails) rather than the ones that punch into it head on (and thus make only short trails). So you might have more luck facing south, then lying down and looking up.

I don't know if this post will give enough time for you to prepare to watch the shower, but I thought I'd put it up quick in case it helps someone. I'm planning on heading up Mauna Loa to try to catch it and maybe even get some pictures, if it turns out to be good. That's the excitement of a new shower; no one knows how good it'll be. The best meteor showers, currently, are the Leonids in November and the Perseids in August, which can have up to 80 meteors per hours. This new shower has been predicted to have anywhere from 30 per hour (fairly weak, but noticeable) to a stunning 1,000 per hour. Given how these predictions tend to go, it will probably be a decent shower, but nothing spectacular (personally I doubt it'll be more than ~80 per hour or so) – but there's always that chance, that tiny chance that it will turn out to be something spectacular. And given that I don't need to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to see it, I'm going to take that chance and see what happens. I'll have another post up soon detailing how it turned out. A hui hou!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Observing Run Report. Also a Birthday.

Well, I decided against doing a second “live from the control room” post on my second night primarily because the second night was quiet, with even less to blog about (if possible) than the first night. Thankfully, two days of staying awake over twenty-one hours pretty effectively flipped my sleep schedule and after coming down Friday morning I slept like a log until it was time to get dinner and go up again. I was thus wide awake the entire second night, and didn't even need a single cup of coffee.

I wasn't thinking that well up there due to a combination of lack of sleep and low oxygen, so I didn't take as many pictures as I would have liked (in particular, I would have liked one of me in the control room). I did take a few though, so I thought I'd share them.

I did at least remember to get a picture of the most exciting thing to happen, the flat tire on the way up Thursday night. That's my friend from college Will, the telescope operator that night, busy fixing our flat. Will loves cars, so I actually learned some things about brakes and how they work and what they look like while we were switching wheels.

This is just a shot back down the road from where we were, with Mauna Loa in the background and clouds at about the 6,000 foot level.

I forgot to get a picture inside the control room, but I did at least remember to take this picture on the way out Friday morning. Sorry it's not quite centered; I had to get off the road over some rough footing to be able to get even this much of the telescope in the frame, and as I had been up for over 21 hours at that point I wasn't sure enough of my footing to risk going further out. Also it's sometimes hard to tell if you've framed something right on your phone screen.

You can see Will next to the vehicle in the car port there, which should give you some idea of the scale. The telescope is actually open and observing in this picture, as we had just turned over control to the remote operator down in Hilo who continued observing till noon that day. That big expanse inside the building is the Gore-Tex membrane (largest in the world) that protects the dish from the elements.

And finally, this last picture is not related to my observing run, but to the other thing that happened this weekend: my birthday! Yes, I specifically picked Friday night to observe so that I could turn 25 up at JCMT on Mauna Kea. It was a really great experience. A quarter century! Wow!

And as a birthday present, my younger brothers sent me the following picture from Minecraft.

I was so taken with it that it's now my wallpaper, as you can see. Thanks guys! Actually, I should explain that monitor: I've decided, instead of buying a new computer, to build one myself. I'm still finalizing the parts for it, but I decided to go ahead and order a monitor first because I can use it (as seen here) as a second monitor for my laptop. Having a dual-monitor setup at work has really spoiled me, as it's just so handy for getting things done and being productive. Thus I intend to get another one of these monitors when I eventually get the computer built and use them together, but in the meantime this one can sit by my laptop and act as extra screen estate.

The only problem with the wallpaper is that every time I turn my computer on for the next few days I'm going to think I'm falling into lava in Minecraft and freak out, but I'm sure I'll get over it sooner or later.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Observing Blog, Live from the JCMT

And now, live from the JCMT control room...

8:30 PM: We left Hale Pohaku at 6 o'clock, only to have a flat tire as we ascended the access road. The took a while to fix, so we didn't get up to JCMT until almost 7 PM. Once there we had a few small faults before we were able to get started observing, but we've been running problem-free for about an hour now. Up here at 4,120 meters (13,517 feet) the pressure is a mere 627 millibars at the moment, only about 61.9% of the mean sea-level pressure of 1,013.25 millibars.

This low pressure typically makes me tired, but I took the extreme step of drinking a cup of coffee before I came up today -- I say extreme because in the past a single cup of coffee at any time of day has been enough to keep me forcibly awake until 4 in the morning. (In fact, I had one yesterday to keep me up as late as possible so that I could sleep in today and be ready to stay up tonight. It worked well.)

10:10 AM: Not much to report. Things have been going fairly smoothly. I'm definitely starting to feel the dryness in my nose and eyes. Normally I feel it even down at Hale Pohaku, but it was a bit more humid than normal down there the last few days. Am now sipping a large mug of tea, which is keeping my throat from drying out at least.

4:00 AM: Pretty quiet night tonight (not a bad thing after our initial adventure!). Just a few minor issues so far (which is pretty normal). I've been fighting off sleep for the last few hours with the help of a second cup of coffee (drastic measures!). Just four more hours to go before I can sleep! I am not cut out to be an observational astronomer. But that's fine, because I always knew I wanted to be more theoretical, anyway.

6:30 AM: Still nothing much happening. It's been a pretty quiet night where the biggest difficulty has been forcing myself to stay awake. Even two cups of coffee wasn't a guarantee. I've managed, though, and am looking forward to going down and getting some sleep so I can do it all again tomorrow night!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Observing at the JCMT

Later this week I'll be heading up Mauna Kea for a few nights of observing at the telescope I work for, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. Safety protocols specify that there must always be a least two people up at the telescope due to the possibility of severe health problems in the low-pressure atmosphere, and most of the time the role of the second person (after the telescope operator) is played by a visiting astronomer. This particular week, for whatever reason, we ended up with a four-day hole in the schedule with no one scheduled to come, so a few of us at work were asked if we wanted to observe. I was (and am) quite excited to spend two nights watching the telescope in action, so I jumped at the chance. I expect it'll be a useful learning opportunity for me to see how the data I monitor for quality each day gets made the night before.

I'll be going up on Wednesday to acclimate, then observing Thursday and Friday nights. I'd like to do what I did before and write a blog post throughout one or possibly both nights as a log of my observing, so hopefully that (or those) will be up by the end of the week. Very exciting! A hui hou!

Monday, May 5, 2014

May the Fourth Be With You, and AstroDay

Not exactly related to the pun in the title, but on Saturday I helped out at the Joint Astronomy Centre table for AstroDay down at the mall. I think I've mentioned AstroDay before, but for a refresher, it's an event each year where all the various observatories and other astronomy groups around the island (such as the UH Astronomy department) set up tables down at the mall as part of an astronomy outreach push. It's quite a big event with tables spread throughout the mall, all of which have their own little diversions and demonstrations. At our table we had build-your-own paper-models of the JCMT to giveaway (which were quite a hit), along with various other things such as a robotic arm which we had kids grab themselves a piece of candy from a bowl with (also a big hit).

It's always great seeing kids getting excited about astronomy and science in general, and I was completely floored by one thing in particular: one of the kids who came to our table recognized me from when I came and spoke to his class as part of Journey Through the Universe. That was over a month ago, and I'm amazed and humbled that he remembered me. There isn't really any follow-up in Journey Through the Universe so it can be hard to judge the impact you have, and easy to discount it because you don't see what impact there is, but an incident like this gives me hope that perhaps, just perhaps, I had more of an impact than I thought. Maybe I've helped inspire someone to go into astronomy. I'll likely never know, but it's a thought simultaneously uplifting and humbling.