MagAO-X 2024Ab Day 10: “30+ years of speckle”

This week could have gone better: Delayed and missed flights, fog, clouds, bad seeing, and I got a head cold. New at LCO this trip: no Covid test on arrival. In case you’re wondering, I brought my own, and I don’t have Covid.

Last night, I turned the super fancy MagAO-X system with its three deformable mirrors into a very expensive speckle camera. 30 years ago, when AO was in its infancy, I did my PhD thesis taking short exposures to “freeze” the seeing and a lot of Fourier transforms to recover high spatial resolution images. Well, in 1.3″ seeing, MagAO-X could still do some correction (miraculously) and the EM-CCDs in MagAO-X can run fast (I ran at about 60 ms, which is considerably longer than the normal coherence time at visible wavelengths). I can play some of those old speckle imaging tricks on images like this:

60 ms image of a binary star
First try at an average image (zoomed)

See the binary star? Of course you do. I select the best of the tens of thousands of images I took and average them up. Combined with other data I have, these images will let us measure masses of the stars.

Tonight, however, the seeing is finally down to median LCO conditions and the forecasted clouds have not yet arrives, so MagAO-X is weeping tears of joy:

A saturated PSF with all those Airy rings!

I may be bummed about the weather, but it’s been fun to be back here and collaborating with the ever-growing team. People are working shifts, so we didn’t get a photo of everyone, but here’s an obligatory sunset selfie with clear skies above.

May 19 sunset selfie thanks to Logan.
MagAO-X womens’ team tonight.

And, dear reader, as a devoted blog follower you undoubtedly know that as predictably as the approach of winter brings clouds, Sunday brings:

Empanadas, of course.

I saw a fox today too, but sorry, I didn’t get a picture.

Today’s best 15 minutes were spent finishing the Sunday NYTimes Crossword Puzzle with the band of Js (Joseph, Jay, and Josh) as we froze speckles.

Pride in our accomplishment

Song of the Day

I almost went with Lady Sings the Blues, one of my favorites for bad observing weather combined with colds, but I don’t want to be a downer. So, I’m going with Freeze Tag by Suzanne Vega in honor of those fast images we took and the coming week’s temperature forecast.

The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past

MagAO-X 2023A Day 16: Too Tired to Blog but This is for Katie

We don’t want anyone reading at home (Katie) to think we’re slackers here. OK, actually, I’ve never actually found Slack useful except here. Basically, MagAO-X has just precipitated my mid-life crisis. First, having joined the observing remotely in 2022A, and maybe it was the effect of all these young people, I decided I wasn’t too old to learn a new programming language. Sure, I thought, I’ll just write a whole new pipeline for a new type of data in a new language (Python). After years of telling everyone that the best programming language is the one you already know, I’ll prove that I’m actually a hip, young programmer. I tell my husband that he should be happy this is the form my midlife crisis took. I didn’t go out an buy the Ford Mustang of my dreams (red, convertible). No, I wrote Python. I didn’t quit my job as an astronomer to vagabond across the world. No, I wrote Python. And yes, starting with being here in person last Fall, I also joined the MagAO-X Slack channels. Because that’s what hip young astronomers do, right?

What would my post be without a tarantula photo of the day? It’s ok team, you don’t have to look away, I won’t post it. I don’t want to precipitate a different type of crisis (arachna-crisis?). Instead, I’ll post Jared’s sunset selfie that I got from Slack (see, I can use it!).

Alright, song of the day. It has to be Forever Young, because that’s what Python and Slack are evidently doing for me. Alphaville’s album came out in 1984, but I associate the song with my freshman year of college in 1987, because my roommate had the album on tape and played it a lot (for those not alive in the 1980s and therefore not yet ready for a mid-life crisis, tapes are a magnetic medium used to store information, in this case analog music). Somehow the song became an anthem of sorts for my then boyfriend, now husband of nearly 25 years, and me. The song is pretty emblematic of 80s youth: fear of nuclear war and suspicion of one’s elders. Each generation has its own angst.

Sometime in college, I bought him his own copy of the album on tape. At some point, I got the CD (for those not alive in the 1990s, CDs were a medium used to store digital information). Some years later when a my grad school office-mate figured out how to rip CDs, I used the IR astronomy group’s Sun Sparcstation and our CD writer (this was hot stuff back then!) to make “mix tape” CD of songs for the then still boyfriend, including, of course, Forever Young. When we finally got married, we asked the band to learn it for our wedding reception. There are some lyrics we have had wrong for so many years that we just keep singing along with ours even though we’ve looked up the words (I can’t hear them sing “perish like a fading horse” and I think “perish like a sea house” makes as much sense and fits the meter and rhyme scheme better).

Uh oh, video blocked here. But maybe those in the US can see it.

MagAO-X 2022B Day 20 – Dripping when we should be KLIPping

I’m baaaaaack. My last post on April 23 promised that if I got to come in person, I’d bring goodies. I tried to make good, but bad weather makes for a lot of snacking need.

Uh oh, two nights to go and the wasabi peas and dark chocolate covered pretzels are already gone. Jared is extraordinarily pleased by his invention of mixing the beans and peas.
Not shown: chocolate covered pretzels

The daytime weather has been lovely, for the viscachas and humans who happen to be awake then. After a couple hours of data taking, the dome started dripping tonight. Maybe our Vizzy friends are taking showers under it.

The dad and teen in my family are almost certainly opting for DoorDash tonight and not nibbling on vegetables.
I like to think of this as “Dad and teen viscachas fend for themselves while mom viscacha observes.” I think they just went out to dinner.
Logan’s Vizzy Viddy of the day.

In case you were wondering, KLIP is an algorithm we use for reducing our MagAO-X data, so we’d rather be KLIPping than Dripping.

I got a taste of sunshine today when I got up early to get my get-out-of-bubble Covid test (negative, yay!) and then treated myself to a cheese empanada by going to lunch. Eden has provided this view of our dome’s “empanada empire.”

The empanada stash.  If you take one of my leftovers, I will hunt you down and make you regret it.
Don’t think we only have 18 empanadas; the cheese are two to a packet. There should have been 28 total since Jared made us all order 4 each.

Is it really possible that no one has used Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” as song of the day before? Drops of starlight are, alas, falling on the ground and not the mirrors tonight as drops of water fall from the dome.

MagAO-X 2022A Day 26: The real last night

Yes, Jared, it really is the last night!

I wish I could send a supersonic shipment to the MagAOX team to sustain them while they quickly pack up everything in the next day or so. I’d include really good coffee and Coke Zero (“We’ve really disrupted the economy of Las Campanas” –Joseph on the soda supply). I just realized I haven’t heard anything about wasabi peas, so maybe those too. If I get to join in person next time, I’ll bring goodies, I promise.

I’ve learned a little more about MagAO-X in the last few days, so I’m even competent to keep the log now, and I have dared to touch the web GUI to change the names of the files. I’m catching on to the procedures for starting on new targets, so with apologies to Herman Oliveras, former DuPont Telescope operator and cartoonist extraordinaire:

Two bugs are dancing. PI Bug says, "Uh oh. You've lost it. Definitely been observing too long. What's with the dance moves?" The two small bugs sing, "Just keep calm and carry on. Find your favorite song and turn it up."  PI Bug says, "I hate to tell you, but we use a bump mask not Bump by Cash Campbell."
Cash Campbell’s song Bump

Yeah, there’s bad calls seeing and bad news speckles
Sometimes you don’t know what to do gain to slide
Your mind wave front sensor can turn a pebble into a boulder
Might feel like a mountain that you’re rolling over,
But it ain’t nothing but a bump.
[With apologies to Cash Campbell]

An afternoon walk to stretch from a night of sitting and snacking is an observing must-have. I have long admired the local LCO flora and fauna (see old blog posts, e.g. here), particularly the vizcachas. Well, there are some consolations to remote observing — it’s spring here in Chevy Chase, MD, that miraculous season between the freezing rain and horrible humidity, and I did get to take a walk on a day that was pleasantly warm in my neighborhood bursting with flowers.

This vizzy relative was in my front yard enjoying a lunch buffet on my plants.

Arabbit, aka bunny, on my front lawn in Maryland.
They’re very cute until they eat my vegetable garden, then I see them as candidates for stew.

The neighborhood has a bit of a predator-prey cycle going with foxes. Come summer, when the rabbit is feasting on my vegetable garden, I’m going to try to lure some Carnegie Earth and Planets Lab foxes up the road a mile to here. Meanwhile, check out this video that a Carnegie postdoc posted today (take that LCO foxes, we have babies):

And for you desert dwellers, enjoy these colorful photos of the cherry tree and lilacs in my yard, tulips in neighbors’ yards, a busy bee on some azaleas, and a Robin on my front steps.

Garden flowers, a bee and a bird
This is definitely the time of year to be in the DC area.

Speaking of things that are bright and striking …

The team has been calling the artificial spots placed by shaping the deformable mirror, which I can use for photometric calibration, “sparkles” (see Sebastiaan’s blog yesterday). I find the name apropos and not just because I like fireworks (in fact, the whole PSF including sparkles and diffraction looks like fireworks) but also because the alternative, “speckles” has too many meanings. I did my PhD thesis with a pre-adaptive optics technique called “speckle imaging.” Speckle is a horribly ambiguous term now, as AO-using scientists use the term speckles to mean any compact light on the detector, whether it arises from rapidly changing atmospheric cells (the way I used the term when I did my PhD), errors in wavefront correction, or is longer-lasting due to wavefront errors in the optical system.

Before this post totally spirals out of control, here’s a cool spiral from the satellite image at 220424T0537.

A cloud spiral on the satellite map of Chile.
Whatever eddy caused that isn’t making our seeing bad under the red circle.

The seeing has finally gotten really good for me, and that makes me love a good night of observing! Speaking of love, it turns out sparkle is the subject of a lot of love songs. I think I’m going to love the sparkles placed by the deformable mirror when I go to reduce my data.

Earth Wind and Fire: Sparkle

Harmonies in tune that reflect the moon
Sparkle, you’re so lovely in my sight”

Billy Holliday – Them There Eyes

“Sparkle, bubble, get you in a whole lot of trouble.”

Aretha Franklin: Sparkle

“Breathlessly and eager, you got me round your finger
A sparkle with the fire, you always take me higher”


MagAO-X 2022A Day 23: Feeling Remote

Late last year, we surveyed the Magellan community about what was lost and what was gained from remote observing. 10/28 people who had used a new instrument during remote observing cited a downside as the difficulty learning to use a new instrument. Obviously, MagAO-X wasn’t on during the 14 months of remote observing to that point. I have to wonder if the other 18 people all used a single-object-medium-resolution-visual spectrograph with few choices, … but I digress.

I assert that difficulty in learning to use MagAO-X is a major downside of remote observing. Now, MagAO-X is an experiment not a facility, so it’s not really fair to compare it to the facility instruments. But I’m used to at least having a goal of observational self-sufficiency. Alas, self-sufficiency is remote. So to speak.

I love observing. I love experiments. I am deeply grateful to the MagAO-X team who has been at LCO for the better part of a month and are still willing to collaborate to try some difficult observations with me. I hope I’ll be able to join them in person later this year (and not just because I’m jealous of their empanadas — surprisingly, in that observing survey, only 93/150 respondents chose “Delicious Empanadas” as a benefit to in-person observing. I can only assume that the other 57 are crazy ascetics who survive only on soylent).

My remote observing station in my home office. I notice that I am probably drinking too much coffee. The desktop, if visible, would show lovely images of LCO at night.

So for the song of the day, here are some appropriate lyrics from an appropriately  named song on an appropriately named album (Confusion on Electric Light Orchestra’s Discovery album).

Every night you’re out there, darlin’
You’re always out there runnin’
And I see that lost look in your eyes


don’t know what I should do
I leave it all up to you

Aside question to ponder: I bet everyone reading this can name more famous astronomers than ELO members. I have actually met one former guitarist/vocalist of ELO Part II whose daughter goes to school with my son, but I really only remember his name because he made it a famous building in Athens. Fame is in the eye of the beholder.