MagAO-X 2022B Day 24: Transitive

I first came to LCO on April 18, 2012, for unpacking the one and only original MagAO. It sounds sappy to say, but life was never the same again. Tonight marked the 453rd sunset I’ve been on this mountain for (I can’t swear that I saw them all).

You’re never gonna believe this (because I lie about this all the time), but Eden and I saw a no kidding actual green flash tonight. It’s only the 2nd one I’ve seen. Believe me, if you aren’t sure, you haven’t seen it.

You can say this about being a long-run experimental astronomer: it’s never the same twice. As a team we’ve seen some stuff. The stuff this time was . . . unique. I did not see that strike coming. Even when it was announced, I assumed it would be like all the previous strikes of various flavors we’ve seen here and we would just more or less ignore it. And then when the strike was going and going, and going, we at least could be confident that we’d have all that best-in-the-world LCO seeing to make it worth it. For maybe the first time, Cerro Manqui didn’t come through — Laird and I agree that this was the worst continuous stretch of bad seeing we have seen in all that time.

Still though, without a doubt, this place is amazing. We owe a huge thank you to Associate Director Dave Osip who, as he always does, came through — this time with a short notice schedule shuffle and made sure we didn’t lose nights. And thanks to Povilas Palunas, Francesco Di Mille, and Konstantina Boutsia who dealt with the extra instrument changes and kept the observatory ready for us. Also, thanks to Emilio Cerda, Mauricio Cabrales and the crew for getting us on and off faster and smoother than I ever thought possible. You guys are awesome. And to our T.O.s, Carla, Jorge, Mauricio, and Alberto — thanks for putting up with all the trouble we can cause, and how boring we can make it.

The MagAO-X team itself is amazing. You came through, toughed it out (both when it was too long to wait, and then when it was too long to stay), and despite the rough air made this a successful run. You guys are what makes this fun, and why I’m already ready to come back and do it again. Thanks too to our observers for being patient and not blaming us for your full-widths. And it was really great to see Alycia in the control room again.

We’re almost gone. Laird and Logan jumped today.

See you when I see you.
Safe travels.

Eden and Avalon and I stayed one more day to organize, tidy, inventory, and (also) take a final or two.

So this is weird. We’re leaving MagAO-X down here. The boxes sit outside, empty.

Nothing to do but watch Vizcachas I guess.

When you spend 12% of your life somewhere, it sort of becomes part of you. With MagAO-X, the blending is a little more intense, since we normally bring it with us. (I’m not referring to the stuff in our carry-ons). For the brave members of the XWCL, we just move our whole lab with us and make ourselves at home wherever. If the switch recognizes your MAC and the WiFI is connected before your screen is on, then did you ever leave? When you’re home, you’re home.

MagAO-X gets an ~8 week rest.

But, in the end, there’s only one place to go when it’s really time to go home. One last selfie, and a wake-up, and we’re in the wind.

The last in line.

There has been a minor kerfluffle in the group over the song of the day rules. It turns out I didn’t say that the song had to be new, and so by construction posting the same song met the letter of the law. But I think it goes deeper: the song-of-the-day obeys the transitive property, just like the MagAO-X traveling ExAO circus.

See you in 2 months LCO.

MagAO-X 2022B Day 21: Tiger Blood and The Universe Game

Whelp, this run is old enough to drink.

There is a peculiar thing about the way the Universe is constructed: it is nearly, but not completely, impossible for one civilization to detect another civilization (unless they want to be found). That parenthetical caveat is worth explaining up front: essentially all SETI conducted to date is predicated on active, intentional attempts to communicate. There are important and interesting exceptions (like G-Hat, see for an explainer). Since I’m going there, let’s also just deal with the Fermi Paradox: it’s not a thing. It has an entering implicit assumption that there is a statistically significant null result that needs to be explained. There isn’t. To understand this, try to answer the question: “how many derelict Imperial-class Star Destroyers are currently floating around in our Solar System?”. You can use this authoritative reference: and this figure:

From the “NATIONAL NEAR-EARTH OBJECT PREPAREDNESS STRATEGY”. I’d use a more up to date plot, but the link is dead. Note that this is just for Near-Earth Asteroids. the dead link just proves the point: we don’t actually know how many star destroyer hulks are out there!

So with all that out of the way, one probably wants to ask: so how would you go about detecting another civilization mister doctor snooty astrophysics dude? The answer is OF COURSE direct imaging with wavefront control equipped large to giant telescopes feeding coronagraphs. But this is where (I think that) it gets a little weird. It’s kinda like the Universe was put together with a set of laws and rules that make it hard to image someone else’s backyard. And, to be fair, this isn’t just a problem for direct imaging. The main fundamental thing that makes it hard to do direct imaging of Earth-like planets is also the thing that makes passive-SETI-for-leakage not a thing: and it’s photon noise.

(Despite appearances, this is an entertainment blog, so this is all hand-wavy-ness intended for Emotional Appeal, plus it’s day whatever it is since I left home and we’re in 2 arcsecond seeing and the TCS is broken and so I’m not that interested. So I’m not going to actually do math or anything. But I can, so don’t try me.)

If you try to measure the brightness of a source that sends you 1 photon at a time, the noise or uncertainty of your measurement of said source’s brightness will be 1. We call this is a signal-to-noise ratio of 1. If the source sends you 9 photons, then the noise is 3, so SNR=3. The noise is always the square root. The main point here is that this is a fundamental property of photons. Now we have to consider the size and brightness of stars and their distribution in space and time. We could go down a deep rabbit hole here, but the bottom line is that stars aren’t bright enough or close enough to give us enough photons to do the wavefront control we need. That square-root thing is the kinda weird (or weird for the purposes of this post) part: it’s just right to make it barely possible, but really f-ing hard.

If you are extremely naive and don’t pay attention to temporal power spectra and closed-loop transfer functions, you come up with answers like “we need picometer precision to achieve the 10 billion contrast ratio to detect an Earth twin”. For reference, a picometer is factors of 100 smaller than the atoms (Aluminum, Silver, Gold) that we coat our mirrors with. My collaborators and I know better, but the point is that it is still f-ing hard. And the barriers once again seem to be coming from fundamental properties of the Universe (here we’re not just dealing with electroweak, but strong force weirdness too).

Not to mention atmospheric turbulence. WTAF is up with that?

This is my grand conspiracy theory: the point to all of these rules is to prevent us from finding out about each other until we get our civilizational shit together. It’s like photon noise and the distribution of baryons are playpen walls. You can’t climb out until you’re ready. You have to be able build the telescopes, and focus the resources on the optics and mechanics and signal processing and control theory to achieve the needed measurement precision. You have to be able to build 25 meter ground based telescopes, and 6.5 meter space telescopes, and you have to solve the horrific challenge posed by bureacracy while you’re at it.

But now I’m going to drive this blog post off the rails. I actually wonder, sometimes, in the middle of the night (or trucking strikes and pandemics) if the Universe is actually a dirty ref. Do you ever get the feeling that there’s always something? Some examples: the pandemic seemed perfectly timed to kill our momentum; just when we are getting going again, the trucking strike costs us a bunch of time and money; our inspiration project SCExAO is currently losing time due to a (another) volcanic eruption. Etc. My self-centered delusions of galactic-scale importance draw some inspiration from this under-appreciated piece of Charlie Sheen magic:

Guess who was old enough to drink when this came out?

Look, I’m not saying it’s aliens. But it just might be aliens. At the very least, we have a long ways to go in terms of perfecting the Kung-Fu we practice to the point where we can start searching extrasolar worlds for life. I really do believe that we (MagAO-X, SCExAO, XWCL, UASAL) as a team can pull this off, and are doing things the right way with the right engineering and project management approaches, and of course some awesome amazing-team dynamics. But will the Universe let us?

As they say, Like-Follow-Subscribe and maybe you’ll find out. But if I’m right we have many more adventures ahead of us.

Sebastiaan started the journey home today.
Tonight’s sunset selfie. Dwindling fast. (Avalon is still here, but was taking a final exam)
When you’re deliriously tired and wearing polarizing sunglasses this says “Espresso A.F.”
Yes, we saw the vizzies.

Today’s song of the day poses a question: is it a Daughtry cover if he never sings?

MagAO-X 2022B Day 15: Farewell, Hello, and how to eat enough empanadas by the light of a distant Christmas tree

Thank you Carla for the wonderful blog post yesterday, and also for taking such good care of us. I of course really mean thanks for delivering our empanadas on Sunday. We’ll see you next turno!

I know it looked like a lot of food, but I was actually somewhat disappointed in our team’s commitment to Empanada Sunday. This tradition at LCO is one of my favorite experiences here, and part of what makes this place so special. I have seen the lounge table tiled with empanadas. A friend of ours even flew home once with her carry-on full of empanadas.

So yes, I ordered 4 empanadas. But that was only because the new night lunch order form limits you to 2 carne and 2 queso. I would have ordered 8. But the trick to hording empanadas here is that you have to defend them.

This is how one does Empanada Sunday on Wednesday.

We said goodbye to Joseph and Warren this morning. Joseph was debugging software while Warren was frantically taking PIAA characterization data until the Sun forced us to close up, and they then ran down the hill to pack and catch the bus. After some sight seeing in La Serena they met up with our fellow Stewardites for the traditional Papas Fritas at the La Serena airport.

Safe travels all.

On-telescope optical characterization can be pretty draining.

Pisco sours are very restorative.

Tuesdays are shift-change day, “turno”, at LCO. So fittingly our departing AOistas passed their relief.

Joseph and Warren got to wave at Logan as she de-planed.

Logan has returned! She managed to stay awake after the 24+ hr journey just long enough to watch the sunset with us.

The first sunset is always special.

Some of our crewmates manage to avoid the stresses of cutting edge astronomical instrumentation research, and just go with the flow.


Since the day after thanksgiving one of the features of sunset watching from the Clay telescope has been the intense glow of the lodge Christmas Tree.

You can see the blue-white jet coming out of the dining hall.

MagAO-X 2022B Day 4: Kilometric Tacos

We’ve recently had cause to learn a new Chilean Spanish idiom: kilometric tacos, which means (more or less) “kilometers of traffic jam”. The strike shows no sign of going away, and the rhetoric has gotten somewhat nasty.

So here are some scenic pictures to take your mind off things.

We had our first Guanaco sighting today:

It seems that the first thing you do after Thanksgiving is put up the tree, even if you didn’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving…

The song of the day is inspired by how we are currently killing time at our secluded mountain getaway.

MagAO-X 2022B Day 1: On Strike

There seems to be a rule that no matter how early we ship MagAO-X, it won’t get to the Santiago airport until I do. This trip followed that rule. The instrument has now cleared customs and is scheduled to make the journey to LCO tomorrow.

However, it could have been on its way as early as Monday if it weren’t for a nation-wide trucking strike, which started Monday morning. We saw the effects first hand on our drive up from La Serena.

Trucks blocking the right lane of the Pan-Am leaving Santiago. They were blocking the inbound side too.

Trucks were lined up blocking the right lane of the highway, and the highway itself was almost empty. It is usually teeming with trucks going both directions.

Reports are that some concessions have been made and the various unions involved are working on accepting them. The truck is scheduled to leave tomorrow morning. In the mean time, we have been enjoying the comforts of LCO while we get over the 26 hour travel day (and 4 hrs of jet lag). I only look at the calendar once an hour or so to remind myself that we have plenty of days left.

I was already asleep last night, so this is my first LCO sunset of 2022B.

Joseph failed to perform his Day 0 responsibility to set the rules for the song of the day for the run. So, let’s go back to the good ol’ “each post must have a song of the day, and the song of the day must relate to the previous post’s song. You don’t have to explain it (but you can if want to).”