MagAO-X 2024Ab Day 5: There’s a first for everything

For the first time ever, an adaptive optics system at Las Campanas Observatory was installed without the guidance of Professor Laird Close! Laird is back in Tucson supporting his daughter at her high school graduation (congrats Annabel!) This means I got to fill in for my advisor as optomechanical lead on MagAO-X, and align the instrument to the telescope. It’s not as easy as it sounds!

To be honest, our smaller group of grad students really stepped up to the plate today to get this install done quickly, efficiently, and correctly. I guess we have good teachers or something….

One of the most important items I was tasked with today was not forgetting to remove the window covering on the back of the instrument (you know, so the starlight can actually get inside MagAO-X).


One of the more challenging sections of the alignment process is leveling the legs. Each of the four legs has four jack screws that are driven into corresponding metal casters placed on the floor. This raises the instrument to a particular height and does a preliminary leveling of the table before we turn on air flow to float the table. For some reason Josh got the pesky leg and we had to adjust it several times to get that lovely “0.0 degrees” on our digital level.

Pictured: Josh defending his leg. Not pictured: Me frantically running around with a caliper measuring each leg’s height off the floor.

Other antics today: Our beloved postdoc, Dr. Sebastiaan Haffert, left the US today to return to his home country to become a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. We know he is going to accomplish amazing things! Too bad he’s leaving behind this group of jokesters (see our clown car).

Once we got the table leveled, and confirmed the ability to float and stay level, it was time to cable the instrument to the electronics rack.

Cabling went smoothly and all the DM actuators were live on the first try! Woot! After that, most of the team went to the early dinner while Kian and I stayed back and installed the worst part of our instrument: the bumpers. Below are some photos. Each leg of the instrument gets a bumper. Notice in the picture the rubber is not quite touching the instrument. That is intentional. When the telescope slews (rotates) our instrument mounted on the nasmyth platform rotates right along with it. If there was an emergency stop, and the telescope abruptly stopped moving, our floating table’s momentum would cause it to continue to move right off of its legs and go flying like a frisbee. Thus we have four bumpers attached to the legs to bump the instrument back onto the legs in case of such an event. While these are a necessary safety precaution, they are no walk in the park. They’re heavy and unwieldy, and if you recognize that clam looking piece of metal, that is because it has to be uninstalled from the cart we use to wheel MagAO-X around, then reinstalled onto the legs with the bumper hardware.

We typically install the C and D bumpers on the outside of the clam pieces and the A and B bumpers on the inside of the clam pieces.

Nonetheless, Kian and I persevered. We installed all four bumpers plus some earthquake bars and we were ready to observe! But not before some sunset shots!

Now I am sitting in the control room, writing this blog, as Jared works on calibrating, Eden is taking logs, Logan works on her dissertation, Kian is modeling some coronagraph, and Joseph tries to fix our never-ending computer problems. Josh and Jay are hopefully peacefully asleep, as they are taking over the second half of this 14 hour observing night. The dome is currently closed due to clouds. Before we closed though, Jared managed to close the loop at 3000 Hz for the first time on-sky!

Happy control room

The best fifteen minutes of my day was really just a few seconds. As soon as Jared confirmed that the system was aligned and a star was incident on our cameras, just as well as the March run, I felt a huge weight leave my shoulders. I have done well by my advisor and I can rest easy knowing I handed off MagAO-X in a usable state.

Song of the Day:

Your song of the day is paying homage to the worst 15 minutes of my day.

MagAO-X 2024Aa Bonus Blog: La Serena, Chile

It appears precedent has been set by An astronomer’s guide to Valparaíso and Bonus Feature: Santiago de Chile. So here is the chronicle of Katie’s and my traipse through La Serena, Chile on our way back to Tucson.

First and foremost we hit the beach! Just like California on the other side of the equator, the Pacific Ocean is not warm, but majestic as always.

We went to the historic shopping center and craft market, La Recova. Great food, great souvenirs, great sleepy pups. Knowing full well we would be missing the 2nd empanada Sunday at LCO, we took advantage of our time in proximity to Chilean restaurants.

The most exciting part of our trip was undoubtedly our tour of the Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve. The folks at El Pino Lodge (Carnegie’s base camp in La Serena) were able to set us up with an amazing bilingual tour.

In case any future astronomers would like to attempt this expedition, I will lay it out. First, you drive about 1.5 hours north of La Serena to Punta de Choros where you will board a boat. Katie and I don’t really know what we were expecting, but we weren’t expecting this:

You begin by cruising around Isla Gaviota in hopes of maybe seeing a whale or dolphin. We didn’t have that luck but we were not in for disappointment. The main part of the tour is slowly taking the boat around Isla Choros and taking in all the wildlife and crazy rock formations. The only people allowed on Isla Choros are biologists studying the animals. However, several sea lions popped into the water to study our boat!

Did we get to see the bell of the ball? The South American Humboldt Penguin? You betcha.

In the final portion of the tour, you get off the boat and wander around Isla Damas and take in the unique flora and fauna.

Finally, on our way out of the city we had to take a look at Faro Monumental de La Serena, the distinctive lighthouse 25 meters high (hey that’s how big GMT will be!).

Welcome to grad school Katie!

Song of the Day:

MagAO-X 2024Aa Day 5: Count Down

We are less than 24 hours from observing and it was crunch time today! We needed fuel so thankfully Sundays at LCO are empanada days!

Chef’s kiss

Laird and Jared were making bets on how long till we get a “grumpy cat”, ie an error message in our computer’s hardware tracking system, once we are on-sky. Laird bet Jared all of his empanadas for the rest of the run. In the words of our PI, “nothing is worth that.”

Another good omen for the observing to come was our observation of a jumping guanaco.

This was all Maggie got:

Come back!

Actually, a few moments later we captured this adorable moment (can you tell we miss our pets?!)

Look at him scratch his little head!

Now, we actually did work today too. Final calibrations were taken, iEFC alignment techniques were practiced a final time, we ensured our brand new Lyot LOWFS (LLOWFS – pronounced “yo-fus”) camera is functioning, and focused the acquisition camera.

After a meeting with the LCO staff going over our commissioning procedure for tomorrow, the team de-cabled and wrapped up the instrument.

MagAO-X youths crushing it on their first clean room pack up

Observing nights here we come!

Song of the Day:

MagAO-X 2024Aa Day 0: Why are you not making my salad?

It’s been a whole year but the team is back! The unpacking and alignment crew arrived at the beautiful Las Campanas Observatory this afternoon.

Josh is there we promise!

Fun fact: if you have items to declare upon arrival to Chile, your line takes you to a fun sign that only you and your advisor get to see.

Happy travelers

Once we arrived at LCO, we got straight to work! Well we did as much as we could until dinner…

We set up our first instrument computer, “AOC”, then got out of the way so the LCO crew could mop the clean room in prep for our long day of unpacking tomorrow.

We are big fans of the new decals highlighting the copious wildlife at LCO!

We are also big fans of the newly established salad bar during dinner! However, this new station did confuse our postdoc, prompting him to wonder about his salad’s whereabouts (see title).

Finally, a good omen for the run ahead of us: a satisfying viscacha siting this afternoon.


Blog Rules: The only rule I’ll implement as the first blogger of this run is that you must incorporate a native plant or animal in your blog. Today’s “song of the day” is the wind quietly blowing over the Atacama Desert.

Naturally Guiding Wavefronts So Phenomenally

Back in Tucson the XWCL team has been very busy hosting some exciting visitors! Teams from the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory made their way down south to integrate a natural guide star wavefront sensor prototype (NGWS-P) with HCAT and MagAO-X. To put it simply:

“The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) Adaptive Optics (AO) systems feature a single conjugate natural guide star based AO system using the 7 deformable secondaries and a post focal wavefront sensor named NGWS (Natural Guide star Wavefront Sensor). The NGWS has two different channels: one featuring a high spatial sampling pyramid sensor dedicated to the fast frame rate correction of atmospheric turbulence and a second dedicated to the correct phasing of the 7 segments of the GMT telescope.”

Plantet, et al., SPIE Montréal 2022

Essentially, they want to use our GMT simulator (HCAT), and functioning ExAO system (MagAO-X) to validate their prototype wavefront sensing channel (PyWFS) and prototype phasing channel (HDFS).

NGWS-P table and control system set up in MagAO-X lab

I want to impress on everyone reading this blog what a complicated setup this actually is. We are simulating the GMT on the HCAT testbed, feeding the GMT pupil into MagAO-X through a hole in a wall, and feeding the NGWS-P testbed through the MagAO-X eyepiece. That is not easy to do…but we did it!

Lab layout

The team started by using the HCAT lab as a staging area where the teams could integrate the two channels onto the NGWS-P bench. Laird and I were busy inventing new novel optomechanical mounting strategies (AKA zip tying a camera to a ladder) so we could view the focal plane the NGWS-P will be receiving.

Once the dress rehearsal was over, we rolled the NGWS-P into the MagAO-X lab and the team went quickly into alignment.

As the life-long learners we are, when plugging in the NGWS-P cryocooler we unfortunately tripped a circuit breaker and MagAO-X went dark. Duh, duh, duh…Luckily we called our most recent alum Dr. Joseph Long to the rescue!

Don’t worry, it’s all fine. We learned the lesson: if you ever want to force-quit MagAO-X, simply plug in a cryocooler on the same circuit.

The software gurus started to make some quick progress once the whole system was finally in place. Alfio (Arcetri) and William (GMT) were poking away at the MagAO-X DMs using their own wavefront sensor.

Ultimately they were able to close the loop using the NGWS-P modulated PyWFS and the MagAO-X Woofer DM with 30 modes! This was a fantastic first run and there is much more exciting work to be done in our subsequent two runs coming this fall. Looking at you parallel DM.

Sharing this musical experience that the GMT, Arcetri, and Arizona teams got to enjoy at Hotel Congress last Friday evening.