Serendipity: Finding an Asteroid

The research group that I am a part of (Pat, Paola, Laura, and myself), proposed to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (or CFHT) earlier this year to get some photometry covering a rather large section of sky. We wanted this data so that we can look for variability in the colours of quasars. Our proposal was accepted, and we have been getting data starting August 2012 through to now; you can see my blog posts on the data releases here, and here, and here, and here. The point of the project is to take images of a large section of sky in three different filters. Therefore the entire area we asked for will be imaged 3 times: once in g, once in r, and once in i.

I’ve spent my time with this data measuring magnitudes of quasars in these pass bands to look for changes in colours (compared to colours measured years ago). In order to properly measure a magnitude you need to use comparison stars (this relates to how you correct for your aperture, a post on that stuff in the future). As I was looking for a good comparison star in this particular section of sky, I noticed one ‘star’ was moving! After showing my colleagues (Lianne and George) we realized quickly we were looking at an asteroid. You can see it moving across the sky here:

This is exactly how you hunt for things in our solar system (asteroids, comets, etc.): by taking multiple images of the same section of sky and seeing if anything moves. The 3 images here are separated by about 25 min each. So in about an hour’s time the asteroid moved the distance you see there, which is a few arcminutes. Thanks to Lianne’s (@liannemanzer) investigations, we found out that, sadly, this asteroid has already been discovered (so we can’t name it after ourselves!). But it was fun to find something like this in my data!

CFHT queue update, Part 4: so…close

So. Close.

The most recent data has come back from CFHT, and we ALMOST got all our pointings. We are at 95.5% completed on our observing run. MegaCam will be back on the ‘scope fo Dec 13-20, so we may get the last pointing then, but we certainly have lots of data! Enough to keep us busy for a bit.

Palomar Observatory: Day 4

When observing at Palomar Observatory, observers stay in a placed called ‘The Monestary,’ which is a little house about a 7 min walk from the ‘scope. It got this name because anyone entering the Monestary during the day must be very quiet! Observers return from the telescope after sunrise and go straight to bed, they do NOT like to be woken up! Especially if you’re on a run that lasts many nights and is in the winter (much longer nights). Every ounce of sleep is crucial. I found the Monestary to be so welcoming, it had a very strong family feel, as if I was an invited guest at a friend’s house. Very comfortable and VERY good food! [Every night before observing I’d eat too much, and then complain about it]

Both our observing nights were wrought with clouds! Night 1 started out with decent weather, but clouded over quickly. Unfortunately the seeing was really good that night*[See below]. Our second night was completely clouded out, and even had some rain! Not a single photon from the sky landed on our CCDs. Them’s the breaks.

You have to see the silver linings when you have nights like that. For instance, a great part of observing at Palomar was that we had a telescope operator with us the entire night. This means we didn’t have to concern ourselves with driving the telescope (which can be difficult), we only worried about the data we were taking. Here’s what the telescope operator’s console looks like:

I wanted to put another image of the Hale 5m, just because I’m in awe of its hugeness

Here’s me sitting at data console, waiting out the clouds!

While the nights we had weren’t the greatest weather, we did get some data, and just as important, I learned a lot. I hope to move forward, using what I’ve learned for the next round of telescope proposals!

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*** In astronomy ‘seeing’ is a measurement of how still or blurry the night is. All stars are point sources, meaning they are very tiny dots with no discernible size. But when the light from a star enters our atmosphere, the tiny dots become blurry depending on the thickness and turbulence of the atmosphere. If you have really good seeing that means the atmosphere is not messing up your image as much. Therefore, you can have really good seeing, but still be clouded out.

Palomar Observatory: Day 3

Our observing program runs on the nights of 14-15 November 2012; our proposal information can be found here. Paola and I spent the last two nights acclimatizing to the night-time schedule, watching the telescope/instrument in action, and working on our own observing program. Heading over to the telescope in the afternoon, though, was foreboding….clouds….many of them.

The telescope we are using is the Hale 5 meter telescope, named after George Hale (a really cool astronomer), at the Palomar Observatory. The primary mirror of Hale is 5 meters in diameter, which amounts to a collecting area 70x greater than the 60 cm telescope at York University! This thing is big, as demonstrated by me standing underneath it:

Currently, Hale is the 19th largest optical reflecting telescope in the world, but between 1948-1976 Hale was the largest. Adding to its fame, Hale saw its first light under the direction of Edwin Hubble, who observed NGC 2261 (aka Hubble’s variable nebula).

The instrument we are using, a spectrograph, is called ‘Double Spectrometer.’ What it does is take the light focused by the telescope and breaks it up into its colours (just like a a prism breaks up light into a rainbow). Looking at the spectrum of colours of an object (in our case black holes), instead of just a picture of it allows you to learn much more. Here’s what DoubleSpec looks like:

…..DoubleSpec is about as big as me! haha.

Paola and I tried really hard to glean some data out of the beginning of the night, but the clouds came in quickly. Here’s the control station (and Paola!):


The clouds that plagued us all night sure made for a pretty sunrise in the east.

Image taken from the catwalk outside the dome, at approximately 10 meters high.

Palomar Observatory: Day 2

I got a little closer to the Hale 5m scope! You can see how big the dome is here

During the night, we weren’t observing, but we were furiously preparing for everything! Here is a work station I was using in the data room. The data room is very warm, the mountain drops to near zero at night! There is snow on the ground!

finally acclimatized to the night schedule, I walked home at 6am after the dome closed and the team went to bed. 

Wish us luck for tonight, the weather isn’t looking great..