The Mauna Kea observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Many of us do astronomy. Whether you just stand in your backyard this summer and go looking for planets, or you venture out to a dark sky destination to see a comet or catch some shooting stars, the terms astronomer and stargazer often go hand-in-hand.
The pandemic has gotten a lot of us into our backyards looking up. This rare planetary event has also given some a new perspective on our global community.
The night sky connects all humans wherever they are, but how many of us ever discover something new about whats out there? Or even have an original thought about the enormity above us each night?
In TheLast Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers, University of Washington astronomy professor Emily Levesque shares the tales of modern-day stargazers, the small band of 50,000 or so professional astronomers around the world that get to use humanitys greatest telescopes on the high altitude peaks such as Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Cerro Paranalin Chile and Roque de los Muchachos in the Canary Islands.
It sounds impossibly romantic. Is it?
If somebody wanted to come watch an astronomer work at night I think theyd be deeply disappointed, said Levesque. Were not out gazing at the stars and were not even sitting out at the telescopewere in a lit room in a different part of the telescope building.
This is a world of computer screens, laptops and data. In fact, many astronomers work 9 till 5 with data downloaded from remote telescopes.
Thats right; astronomers dont look through telescopes.
"The Last Stargazers" is a new book by astronomer Emily Levesque.
The title of Levesques book reflects the engaging texts many stories about discoveries made at mountaintop observatories, but in modern terms, its a little ironic because professional astronomers dont do all that much observing with their own eyes.
People imagine an astronomer to be somebody hunkered down at a telescope, but they would be surprised at the adventures we have, and the sheer variety of things that we do for our job, said Levesque. But we don't look through eyepieces anymore. In terms of the technology involvedfrom cameras to advanced detectorsthe way we do astronomy is so surprising to some people.
However, dont think that astronomers are stony-faced when theyre sat in front of a computer screen displaying something spectacular. Our responses to seeing something captured by a powerful telescope are the same as the responses of amateurs looking at Saturn for the first time, said Levesque, whos incredibly enthusiast about astronomy. We know all the science behind what were looking at, but we react in the same way as anyone enjoying looking at the night sky.
On Palomar Mountain in California lies the Hale Telescope, that has been in use for 60 years. Photo ... [+] by Joe McNally/Getty Images)
Anyone whos ever made a plan to look at the night sky has a nemesis; cloud.
Thats why the planets big telescopes are on mountaintops above the clouds. Thats the theory. The reality is that weather happens, and so does engineering. On the big telescopes that means only about 300 observing nights per year. So what happens if you get valuable telescope time, get yourself up the mountain for three nights, and the clouds come in?
Not much. Its all or nothingyou can get a string of good weather and a working telescope, or cloud and a broken instrument, said Levesque. If its the latter, tough luck.
You just come home and you have to apply again, and you dont get a special little star on your proposal saying she got clouded outyou have to go back and take your chances again, just like anyone else, said Levesque.
Since telescope time is scheduled six months in advance at most observatoriesand typically astronomers wait for a year to be assigned a slota single cloud or one windy night can make a huge difference to astronomical research plans. The stakes are highyou really hope for good weather, you really hope nothing goes wrong, and you really hope you don't make any mistakes, because the time is so precious, said Levesque.
Depending on what object they need to observe, astronomers can request a specific day or even hour (perhaps for an asteroid occultation), a season (say, anytime between November and May for observing Betelgeuse), and whether they require complete darkness or are happy with a full moon-lit night.
Sometimes astronomer will request to observe an object at a specific time to coincide with precisely when Hubble will be looking at it, so that data can be compared.
The flying observatory "SOFIA" (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), a Boeing 747SP of ... [+] NASA. Photo: Christoph Schmidt/dpa (Photo by Christoph Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images)
So astronomers almost never look though telescopes, but they always hang out on mountain tops, right?
Well, no, not always. The Mauna KeaObservatories (MKO) in Hawaii are at 13,803 ft./4,207 meters above sea level, but thats not always enough.
Some telescopes fly, so astronomers have to sometimes become stratonauts.
Cue Levesques adventures in NASAs flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Having written a couple of times recently about studies of Betelgeuse and Pluto from the specially-equipped Boeing 747SP aircraft (modified to carry a 2.7-meter/106-inch reflecting telescope), this part of the book particularly engaged me. Levesque recounts her evening with the stratonauts who operate SOFIA with incredible enthusiasm (a theme throughout the book).
As is the way with astronomers, she also got to see something truly exquisite.
I was flying on that telescope as an astronomer and we were down in the southern hemisphere, said Levesque. I saw the southern aurora from the cockpit of the plane flyingthe first time I've ever seen the aurora.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would be in that place.
However, astronomical opportunities for such incredible experiences could be on the wane.
Professional astronomy is no longer about looking through telescopes or hanging about in freezing temperatures. Levesque has had many experiences of how astronomy is done nowmentioning the smell of engine grease and coffee as two dominant themesbut the disciplines next chapter seems far less exciting.
In the future will all telescopes be controlled remotely? Will astronomy be an office-based vocation?
Weve certainly seen a drift toward telescopes being operated remotely, said Levesque. One of the telescopes that I spend a lot of time using now is the Apache Point Observatory 3.5 meter telescope, which I can operate from my laptop on my couch.
Many are now operated using queue-based scheduling; an astronomer send instructions to the telescope ahead of time, it makes observations when the conditions are right, and the data arrives in the astronomers inbox.
We will see many more telescopes run that way, said Levesque. However, there is still a telescope operator at the telescope itself, and there are still engineers and staff on site taking care of the telescope. Its just that the astronomy is increasingly being done remotely.
I dont think well ever truly remove the idea of people at telescopes, except in the case of robotic telescopes, which are amazing at some things, but cant do some things, said Levesque. The variety of questions were trying to answer with telescopes means that were probably always going to demand human participation at some level.
Sunset at the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii.
So are astronomers still stargazers?
Levesque tells a story about what astronomers do before an observing session at most mountaintop observatories. When we watch the sunset before an observing session we pretend were checking to see how clear the sky is looking, said Levesque.
Its a wonderful chance to enjoy the planet, enjoy the observatory, get a moment of silence and see our nearest star doing something beautiful from the edge of the world.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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