Telescopes in the desert

Flashback-Friday to that time I went for a job interview… May 2003.

I first visited the Very Large Array (VLA) in 1996 and immediately fell in love with the desert. Fast forward a few years and I found myself in Socorro interviewing for a job that – unfortunately – disappeared in the time between arranging the travel for the interview and turning up at the door of the NRAO building. In the days before the ubiquity of cell phones, my would-be interviewers could only leave voicemail on my work phone while I was away on holiday (exploring the National Parks of the Sierra Nevada), so it was only when I read my work email just before I left for Albuquerque that I found out. Disappointed, I still went if only to meet the folks there and catch up with one of my colleagues about a project we were working on.

Of course, given a few days there, I couldn’t resist driving out to see the telescope array itself. It’s a fun drive and I remember seeing pronghorn along the way. On arrival, I checked in with the operators and let them know I’d be wandering around taking photos. Thankfully, the array was in one of its more compact configurations so I was able to size up this shot with multiple telescopes in the frame. Looking back at the photos I got that day (with our first distinctly-crappy digital camera, too), I think this is the best of the bunch.

If I remember rightly I enjoyed some good pizza and fine local beer that night!


And so we say farewell to the tropics for now with this view of the summit of Maunakea from my 2009 flight back to Honolulu and then home. Most of the observatories are visible here, with the exception of the most important one for me: the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is hidden in the so-called submillimetre valley behind the main summit ridge. I’ll post some photos of that next time 🙂

Getting a port-side window seat on the inter-island flight was always a priority for an astronomer in case it was clear enough to get a view of the summit of Mauna Kea. Fortunately, it was on this occasion and although I was not in a window seat, the person next to me was kind enough to swap when they realized how much I wanted to take photos. I love the fact that I have part of the aircraft wing in the frame – it lends some context to the picture. And the side lighting – even though it’s a bit hazy and the contrast is a bit low – is quite lovely. That was one of the nicest inter-island flights I’ve had – the sunset as we approached Honolulu was gorgeous! I’ll get round to posting photos of that at some point.

Tropical mountain glow

A different kind of mountain shot for mountain Monday which I guess is less about the mountain itself and more about the view. Mauna Kea has some of the clearest and darkest skies on Earth, which is why there are a dozen telescopes up there. I was thrilled to capture the guide laser from Subaru (which I couldn’t see with my eyes), the Milky Way, and some bonus green airglow too. The Andromeda galaxy is the fuzzy blob just right of centre.

This was going to be my last visit to Mauna Kea as a professional astronomer, and I knew I had to make the most of it photographically. On previous trips I’d always taken our smaller (i.e., crappier) camera. Having just spent 10 days on vacation elsewhere in Hawaii, I had one of our SLRs with me so I knew I stood a chance of getting a good night shot. I’d seen other photos that showed the lasers from the adaptive optics systems of the various telescopes including some fantastic time-lapse videos that made it looks like the observatories were shooting at extraterrestrial entities. (In reality they’re just shooting at the upper layers in the Earth’s atmosphere.)

While I was outside lying down on the road at 2 in the morning, I couldn’t see any sign of the laser and it was only with the long (30-sec) exposure that it showed up. I was really happy with that. When I processed the photo I was even happier to see the green airglow – I knew it couldn’t be the aurora as Mauna Kea is way too far south to ever see that. Coupled with the starry band of the Milky Way and the little fuzzy blob that is the Andromeda galaxy, this is possibly one of my most satisfying night photos. Sure, I wouldn’t say no to going back with an even better camera, but if I don’t get to do that then I feel I can be happy with this photo.

Mercury and the Sun

A little black disc against a big bright disc: Mercury (lower left) wanders across the face of the Sun. The fuzzy patch in the upper part is sunspot 2542.

My original idea was to dig out my solar filter and attach it to one of our SLRs, but that meant trying to work out which box it’s stored in. It was much easier to simply project the image onto a white sheet of paper. Having said that, it took a few attempts to get the camera to focus on the image, and then angle the paper so that it wasn’t too shiny (it’s amazing how shiny paper is when projecting the Sun). I was also impressed with the camera’s resolution, even showing up the fibres in the paper. With the breeze and heat haze from the Sun itself, it took quite a few photos to get a handful that were sharp enough to show. This is one of them. Obviously 🙂