Tonight started of quite well. We finally had average conditions, which much better than the 2 arcseconds seeing from before! The first target of the night is one from Logan. She is searching for white dwarf companions around main sequence stars. Stellar evolution tells us that there should be more white dwarfs than we can see. These white dwarfs could be hidden as companions close by brighter stars, which make it difficult to see them. MagAO-X is an ideal instrument to search for faint things next to bright things. We use coronagraphs to block the starlight of the primary to search for faint companions. Below is a video showing MagAO-X running at full steam trying to get maximum performance.
Sadly, we had to stop again around midnight. The seeing went through the roof.
The seeing became so bad that we just gave up trying to get science data and we switched to sparkle engineering. This also allowed us to explore the more important things in life. Such as tasting all the different types of milk that LCO has to offer. The reviews and commentary are outside the scope of this blog post and will be part of later work.
At the end of the night the seeing became a bit better and Logan could take over again to search for her white dwarf companions. Somehow it looked like all stars we looked at were binary stars. After seeing 5 binary systems we realized that it was the system itself that created the binary components!
And during the lows of the night we also lost our dear friend Vizzy. As if the night had not been bad enough.
After the night ended I continued to work on some daytime engineering to get the new integrated coronagraph/wavefront sensor to work. This has been manufactured by the local manufacturista Avalon McLeod. Yesterday night we commissioned the coronagraph part of this optic. And today we did the lab tests of the wavefront sensor side. Now we only need to get the wavefront sensor on sky!
The last week has been though weather wise. So here we are hoping for better skies in the next couple of nights.
We were waiting eagerly on any news about the arrival of MagAO-X while the trucker strike continued. The first good news we got was that MagAO-X was cleared through customs and we got visuals.
We also got the message that we were waiting to hear. MagAO-X will arrive on the mountain on Friday morning! It will arrive before our observing runs start. But as happy as this makes us, we will only have 2 days to fully prepare the instrument for on-sky work. Meaning that we will have a couple of very busy days coming up.
Another exciting update is that the food menu has been diversified. The first new dish was also a mystery dish. It was some kind of mediterranean and chilean fusion cooking. They made shawarma and wrapped it in tortillas. I think it was a nice dish but the garlicy sauce that was added was a bit heavy. And another surprise came today, maybe because they know we have suffered enough due to the truck strike, we actually got some very nice French fries. So overall the first couple of days have been nice to acclimatize on the mountain and get us rested before we start the hard work.
We thought that we would go on-sky with MagAO-X for 14 nights when we left Tucson nearly 4 weeks ago. However, after some heated debate we realized that we never checked the official schedule of the telescope. Well, we got another night coming up. Luckily we build in a day of contingency and we can actually observe the real last night too.
This run was full of new problems and challenges as time went on. It has been over two years since MagAO-X was on the telescope, and we had forgotten many things that had to be fixed. Over the past four weeks we have fixed so many things to make a smooth runnig system. And, that is something we noticed last night. MagAO-X worked without any problems or hiccups. We had great performance and a very robust setup. And to quote some random person, “MagAO-X is working surprisingly well. I never expected this”.
MagAO-X is now one of the first, if not the first, visible AO system with a coronagraph. An image behind a Lyot coronagraph is shown above. Coronagraphs are used to block star light while letting exoplanet light pass through. So its a way to ‘turn off’ the star. However, speckles often mess us up. According to wikipedia; a speckle is a granular interference that inherently exists in and degrades the quality of the images. We don’t like speckles, they add light in places we don’t want and they look like planets. So speckles have to go. Though, sometimes they can also be useful. The image above shows a set of speckles in a cross close to the center of the image. We use these to add artificial calibration stars because the real star is removed by the coronagraph. These are useful speckles! The term speckle is not correct for these set of calibration spots, because speckles degrade image quality and we use it to improve our image quality. Therefore, from now on we will call them sparkles. And we have been using our Calibration Sparkles quite a lot over the past two weeks.
Our bonus night will be coming up tomorrow, or today ? I don’t know anymore what to call everything. We have been here so long that we have survived several crew rotations, and at least we will be going up for our 4th and last Empanada Sunday.
The song of today is from one of the more famous Dutch rap formations called “De jeugd van tegenwoordig” (The youth of today), who sing about stardust.
It is quite a late morning while I am writing this blog post. We had a very successful first night of commissioning of VIS-X. VIS-X is the Visible Integral-field Spectrograph eXtreme (VIS-X). Of course everything we do is extreme. So the spectrograph also had to be extreme. VIS-X is the project that I have been working on in the last two years. Its goal is to take spectra of exoplanets and use that to characterize what’s in them (of course everyone wants to search for signs of life ;-)). After multiple day of aligning, I finally was able to get everything up and running. And we were able to use VIS-X on-sky!
One of the challenges with VIS-X is the acquisition on-sky. MagAO-X already has a small field of view of a couple arcseconds and, the field of view of VIS-X is even smaller! We can only see things with 0.55 arcseconds, that’s about 1/7000th of a degree.
The first multi-spectral images of VIS-X + MagAO-X. The colors correspond to the wavelength range of 450 nm (blue, left) to 950 nm (red,right). The next few night will be very exciting when we will try VIS-X on more challenging targets.
Using new instruments and observing is always exciting. However, sometimes observing is just a lot of waiting and it can be very tiring. Everyone deals with that in their own way.
VIS-X has two different observing modes. A low spectral resolution mode and a high spectral resolution mode. We did the commissioning of the low-res mode last night and to switch to high-res, I have been aligning after a full night of observing. My current feelings are well captured by this dutch song of today.
Two and a half years ago, I came to the University of Arizona to work with MagAO-X. The plan was that MagAO-X would go to the Magellan telescope twice a year. And then suddenly a global pandemic appeared. However, right now we are really at Las Campanas Observatory preparing for an observing run! We arrived here on Monday and we entered the Bubble Mode for 3 days. In the Bubble mode we had to stay away from the other staff and got food delivered by room service. Our initial expectation was that we had to stay in this bubble mode for 72 hours after arrival at LCO. But, the clock started counting from arrival in Santiago! We learned this after missing our special breakfast room service. The kitchen staff thought we were already good to go for normal breakfast. So for the final procedure to break out of the bubble, we went to the medical unit to get our COVID test 8 hours earlier than planned.
All three of us agreed that this was quite an unpleasant nose swab. I think they were trying to scrape out some brain material. So for all other MagAO-X observers; be warned! After getting our clearance, we were allowed to eat in the actual cafeteria during lunch.
With the covid-free clearance, we were allowed to come in contact with other humans. I could finally get a tour of the Magellan telescopes.
And because we were allowed to meet other people, we could actually start unpacking MagAO-X. We met up with the great technical staff of LCO to crane the electronics box that contains the driver electronics of pretty much every part of the instrument. This required a very delicate procedure and took a couple hours. But, we are very happy with the results; the electronics box is unpacked and plugged in.
But what is a commissioning run without any challenges? Apparently our graphics cards found our plan to observe most disagreeable. Luckily, more team members are flying out tomorrow and they have quickly scavenged the lab in Tucson for more spare graphics cards. We still have more than a week to go for our first night, and enough work to do. It is going to be an exciting run with many interesting projects. Stay tuned!