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Monday, January 22 2018 @ 11:09 pm EST

A Brand New Age: Queue Observing at Mt. Paranal

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Marc J. Kuchner

  
  
European Southern Observatory at Mt. Paranal, Chile.
Click image for larger view
First a caravan of white observatory cars arrives, winding up the narrow road to the 2600-m- (∼8500-foot-) high summit. Then the shutters around the domes open, and rays from the setting sun alight on colossal mirrors and metal struts. It’s the beginning of another busy night at Mt. Paranal, Chile, where I am learning about new, more efficient ways of managing a modern observatory.

I stepped into the observatory’s control room to soak up some of the new, unfamiliar culture. Here, under florescent lights and drop ceilings are banks of computer screens, one bank to control each of the four big telescopes on the mountaintop and a few others too. At each bank sits two people, a telescope operator and an astronomer.

The layout of this workspace was not unfamiliar to me. But the way these Mt. Paranal astronomers work certainly was. When I was cutting my teeth at Mt. Palomar observatory in California, I would only go to the telescope to take my own data. In stark contrast. everyone observing at Mt Paranal tonight is taking data for someone else.

The Mt. Paranal astronomers each spend 105 nights a year here on the mountain performing various duties, including taking data for other astronomers. The latter, they call “executing the queue.” Headquarters in Germany decides what parts of the sky will have priority on any given night (the queue). Then the Mt. Paranal astronomers march up the mountain and carry out this program, choosing calibrators, filling the log books, and adapting to changing conditions. They send the data back to headquarters, and from there it makes its way out to the wider astronomical community for study.

This new way of working allows the Mt. Paranal astronomers to specialize in just one or two telescope instruments each. Surely this plan is more efficient than the old-fashioned way, where each of us had to learn every instrument we used from scratch—sifting through manuals at 3:00 AM when the filter wheel got stuck or the cryogen ran out, watching precious observing time tick away. Here at Mt. Paranal, much of the work is done in a big room full of people, not off by yourself, reducing some dangers of the process. Also, queue observing cuts down on plane travel, an important step for cutting carbon emissions.

It’s a brand new age, I thought as I watched the giant domes spin in the silent, cold Chilean night. And maybe with queue observing, some of the romance is gone. Still, my colleagues and I couldn’t help saying as we stared out across the moonlit mountains: I can’t believe how lucky we are to be here.

Dr. Marc J. Kuchner is an astrophysicist at the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA’s Astrophysics Division works on big questions about the origin and evolution of the universe, galaxies, and planetary systems. Explore more at http://www.science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/. Kids can explore these topics at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/space.
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