Aina travels to Chile to work with the Gemini South telescope

Aina Musaeva is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory while an honours astronomy student with The University of Sydney.  She is a keen observer and member of the Sydney City Skywatchers, regularly presenting at meetings.  In 2011 Aina received a summer studentship from the Australian Astronomical Observatory  (AGUSS) for a ten week program at the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. Here is her report.

My project:
I was working with Tom Hayward and Fredrik Rantakyro characterising the image quality of the Gemini South 8-meter telescope. We wanted to know which parameters affect the image quality and how we can better plan the queue when observing the science targets with the telescope. To do this we analysed the Gemini Engineering Archive data, which contains information from various environmental, instrumental and telescope sensors. So I wrote some data processing and analytical routines in the programming language Python which I had to learn for this project. Among other things we discovered that seeing (one of the most important image quality factors for the telescope targets in the optical wavelengths) was worth when pointing the telescope to the south. Such discoveries can be utilised when optimising the use of the telescope. Imagine you are a scientist and you applied for the telescope time to take images of some galaxy currently located in the southern part on the sky. However for your particular object you require very high image quality. Then the queue scheduler of the Observatory will make sure that you get your time on the telescope when this galaxy is as far from south as possible because even though the science instruments are capable of producing the images of the quality you required the environment of the site will degrade the quality.

Gemini South Telescope
Gemini South Telescope © by Thomas Matheson

Gemini Observatory:
Gemini has its own compound (recinto) where many astronomers reside. The compound is guarded 24/7 so very soon we knew most guards by names and they knew us. The offices are located at the same place so it is an easy 5 minutes walk from home to work. We lived in one of these houses together with Joe Callingham, the other recipient of the AGUSS. We also had our own office where we worked for 10 weeks. The Observatory’s staff has made us very welcome from day 1. We were introduced to ALL the members of staff, how often does that happen at the places people work these days? Apart from working on our own projects we also went to various colloquia which are organised every week, sometimes even several times a week. It has been very interesting to hear what people are doing across the world with the data collected with Gemini and also other telescopes. It was also a surprise for us to discover that about 80% of staff are engineers and not scientists. In the university environment it is quite the opposite, however it is understandable as the Observatory provides the service to the community and its most important objective is to deliver that service. Therefore a lot of effort is put into optimisation of the telescope performance.

Looking into the spectacular eight metre mirror!
Looking into the spectacular eight metre mirror!   Photograph Aina Musaeva


The telescope:
We were lucky enough to go up to the telescope twice. The first time during the laser commissioning run, which was especially exciting for Joe as his project was all about that laser and the sodium layer it interacts with. The laser is absolutely impressive, 50W laser requires airplane spotters so the laser doesn’t interfere with their operation. So the first time we had a large team of people even though there have been no science targets observed that night. The mountain the telescope was on is about 2715 m high and is called Cerro Pachon. The primary mirror of the telescope is 8 meters in diameter and is absolutely majestic. So if the altitude hasn’t quite taken our breath away, the sight of the mirror has surely done the job.

8 Meter Mirror
On the same mountain there is also another telescope SOAR with a “humble” 4 meter mirror. The telescope is completely computerised, however when something goes wrong there is an allowance to deal with issues manually. The dome opens up a few hours before the sunset so the air temperatures outside and inside the dome come into equilibrium by the time the observations are due to start. This is important since one of the annoying things in terms of astronomical seeing is thermal currents forming inside of the dome that degrade the image quality. The second time we were on the mountain during the new moon and we could observe so many celestial objects! I brought my binoculars with me but the sight is so dark, you can just observe with your own eyes Gemini Observatory has a hotel for the astronomers who are working at the mountain which is only 5 minutes away, so after a long night they don’t have to travel long before hitting the pillow.
We were also lucky to visit Las Campanas Observatory which has a whole bunch of telescopes! The seeing at that site is absolutely exceptional!

La Serena:
The base facility of Gemini is located in a beautiful town called La Serena. It is not very big but has a nice climate: it never gets too hot or cold, unless you move into the desert. However it never rains here, we were surprised of how generous people were watering their gardens provided the fact the dam level was only 30%. La Serena has a lovely beach which stretches as far as the eye can see. The water however is quite cold even though we were there in the heat of summer. People are laid back, nobody seems to rush anywhere unless it is of course on the road: drivers in Chile are crazy and impatient. I even asked one of the astronomers why is it that so and they told me that if you are planning to spend a solid hour for lunch in some nice cafe, you have to hurry getting there!
What impressed us most in La Serena was actually its fruit and vegetable markets! Imagine the freshest fruit you have ever tasted – but this is better! And incredibly cheap! I swear you could go to the market with $20 and buy the whole market! Apart from grapes, watermelons, apples and other common fruit they also have these interesting local fruit that are even hard to describe, you just have to try those for yourself! A lot of those fruit flavours are added to ice-cream, in La Serena they love their ice-cream, it is sold absolutely everywhere! I also loved that they had so many berries, including those that you never ever see in Australia but those that I am used to in Russia: like raspberries and red current.

Apart from the fruit markets La Serena also has lovely craft markets where you can get gorgeous knitted items with South American themes and jewellery. In Chile they love using the stone called Lapis lazuli in jewellery, it is very unusual but beautiful so I sure brought some home with me.
There are no high buildings in La Serena so at night the whole harbour with all its beautiful lights is like on your palm, especially viewed from where we lived (up on a high hill).  Right next to La Serena there is a port town called Coquimbo with a huge Millennium Cross and a fish market.

Mote con huesillos
Mote con huesillos. Photograph Aina Musaeva

Food and drink:
Many cafes have this lunch specials where you can get 3 course lunch for as little as $6! There are many different Chilean dishes we have tried among which are: pastel de choclo (baked corn paste with meat), completes (hot dogs with avocado) and ceviche ( fresh fish in lemon juice). One of the common sweet drinks is mote con huesillos, which is a sweet water with barley and pickled peaches. I know it doesn’t sound appetising but it was most delicious! Pisco is some kind of fortified wine that is popular but in my opinion their best alcoholic drink is actually red wine and in particular wine made of the carmenere grape which disappeared from European vineyards a long time ago.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *