MagAO-X 2022A Day 18: Rainbows in the sky

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!

The first light images of VIS-X!

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.

Graduate student Joseph Long ‘working’. He claimed that he could see perfectly well.

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.

MagAO-X 2022A Day 3: First visit of LCO

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.

Here we can see the PI checking in for his COVID test.

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.

The MagAO-X forerunners having their first post-bubble mode lunch together.

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.

Me checking out the Magellan Clay telescope.

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.

Taking the electronics box out of its shipping crate.
A happy PI with his electronics box.

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!

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 26: Kings day in the USA

Today is the largest national holiday in the Netherlands, Kings Day. Kings Day is a bit of a difficult holiday to describe. It originates from the 19th century when the great-grandmother of the current king was reigning. The government decided that it was necessary to have a national holiday to celebrate the monarch. And so, Queensday was born. The holiday is held every year on the monarch’s birthday. Except during the reign of the previous queen, who wanted to keep it during her mother’s birthday to honer her.

Since 2013 we have king, which didn’t have for over a century the previous three monarchs were all queens. Nowadays we celebrate the kings birthday on the 27th of April. While I say we celebrate the king, we actually just use it as an excuse to have the largest party of the year. In the video below you can get a bit of a feeling of what Kings Day means.

For us in the USA we sadly can not party on a boat. That is especially difficult here in Tucson where we are getting or first 40+ C day of the year this week, pfoeh. So we decided to make and eat the traditional Kings Day pastry, Tompoes. The Tompoes is a pastry that consists of two layers of puff pastry with custard cream in between and colored icing on top. Tradition dictates that the icing is pink, and this is a pretty hard rule. You can not do something else without getting some disapproving Dutch eyes on you.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Except on Kingsday, then you are allowed to switch to orange icing on top. So we made some orange Tompoezen for ourselves. The recipe is relatively easy but takes a bit of time. You need to make the custard a day before so that there is enough time to solidify a bit. The next day you bake some puff pastry sheets that are cut into rectangles. You grab one sheet of baked puff pastry and you just put some custard on it. Then you add the second sheet and you color the top with some icing. And well that is it. You can add whipping cream on the top according to your own preference.

Our home made Tompoezen with orange icing. They were great.

The most difficult part of the Tompoes is the whole thing. Because the pastry sheets are crispy you can not really cut into it. Usually what people do is take off the top and it eat. Then they use a fork or spoon to eat the custard. And finally, they eat the bottom pastry. But there are many different variants. Here we have a video that shows 12 different ways that people can be classified into based on their way of eating a Tompoes (commentary in Dutch).

With this I end the blog post of the day. The song of the day is the Dutch National Anthem, which is one of the oldest national anthems in the world. It was composed in 1572 during the 100 year war against the Spanish king.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 20: A tale of bread and chocolate

In the past week the heat has been slowly ramping up and it will continue to go up the next couple weeks. So staying home and inside is actually not that bad. One thing that I do have noticed is that we are going through our supply of food slightly faster than normal. It seems like I am quite easily distracted by snacks. Luckily, in the past week we had an opportunity to order some items from a Dutch food import shop. So today I am going to share some typical Dutch food and snacks. Of course I will go through the not so famous examples, because everyone knows about Dutch pancakes, raw herring and liquorice.

The most important part of a Dutch diet is bread. According to statista we are eating 60kg of bread on average per year, that is more than double the US average This also leads to aisles full of products that you can put on your bread in the Netherlands. One of our favorite products is hagelslag (sprinklers) and we do not kid around with them. There is a large variety of hagelslag, from sweet to sweeter to sweetest. Mainstream sprinklers are chocolate sprinklers and you can find them anywhere. Whenever you find that chocolate is not really your flavor you can just switch to fruity flavors (who am I kidding, there is never enough chocolate).

The Dutch classics. Starting on the left we have milk chocolate sprinklers, then fruit sprinklers, dark chocolate sprinklers and on the right forest fruit.

Another option when you do not really know what chocolate to pick exactly is the mix, where we have just mixed different flavors of chocolate.

The famous mixed chocolate sprinklers.

We have three flavors of chocolate sprinklers and two fruit flavors, and now you may think that is it. But, luckily we are not even halfway through all sort of sprinklers. If the sprinklers are to small for you, there is always the xxl hagelslag. And of course this one also comes in many flavors. XXL Hagelslag
On the left you can see the normal hagel and on the right is the XXL hagelslag. As one can clearly observe the XXL hagels is quite a lot bigger and therefore more tasty.

If you do not like these 3D shapes of hagelslag you can always go for vlokken (flakes). Vlokken are, well, flakes of chocolate.

Dutch Sweet Toast With Butter And Chocoladevlokken (topping From ...

All these types of sprinkles come from the invention of the anise sprinklers that were created in the early 20th century. Dutch tradition dictates that you secretly place a tray of biscuits with ‘muisjes’ (anice sprinklers) in the common area of your workplace if you are expecting a baby. Then the other people will try to guess who placed it there. Another quirk of the muisjes is that you usually pick the color of the gender of you baby, pink for a girl and blue for a boy.

geboorte rituelen en tradities
Dutch biscuits with muisjes. We have pink variants on the left and the blue variant on the right.

And then finally we end up with the luxurious line of sprinklers which have been created in last couple years. If you are feeling that the normal chocolate is too sweet and therefore for children, we have the perfect type for you. You can always enjoy a more adult flavor of extra pure chocolate. This means that you get your hagelslag with a higher concentration of cacao or a little bit of coffee flavor.

De Ruijter Specials aanbieding - Week 18-2016 | Albert Heijn
We have intense dark chocolate (60% cacao), extra dark (35%) and coffee flavored for the real gourmet.

So by now I hope you are convinced that hagelslag are a very good idea and that you can create an endless variety. That is it for today and I will be picking up my new box of hagelslag that just came in!

For the song of the day I picked shipwrecked by Alestorm as we are all shipwrecked at home.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 1: New life for MagAO-X, Earth and Space.

Let’s continue in the spirit of the blog post of yesterday with the introduction of another new member of the MagAO-X team. Last fall I finished my PhD at Leiden University in the Netherlands and I was lucky enough to get a fellowship to work at the University of Arizona. Now I do have to say that preparing for an emigration while finishing your PhD can be quite stressful. Luckily that is all done now so I could focus on settling in Tucson.

Settling in Tucson actually went a lot smoother than expected. We were a nervous about finding housing, because the housing market in the Netherlands is really in a tight spot at the moment. But it was really easy to find nice houses and apartments. Within two weeks of us arriving in Tucson we already found our current house. I would give the advice to everyone that is moving to Tucson to take an hotel / Air B&B / motel for a week or two so you can have a look at apartments and houses. You do not have to be afraid that you will not find something. After we signed the lease we needed a couple weeks to get all the standard things up and running (utilities and bank accounts etc.).

After settling in I could finally focus on working on/with MagAO-X! During my PhD in Leiden I worked most of my time on adaptive optics and high-resolution spectroscopy of exoplanets (some shameless advertisement of my thesis: ). In my remaining 2.5 years ( it has already been half a year since I left the Netherlands ?! ), I will add spectroscopic capabilities to MagAO-X. The idea is that spectroscopy can be used to increase the detection sensitivity to baby planets and to characterize the atmospheres of older more mature planets. The first case is something I have shown in an article that was published last year where we used spectroscopy to discover a second baby planet around the young star PDS 70! This was picked up by over two hundred of media articles( see for example an article by Fox News ). My favorite article is one from a Russian website (, where they discuss the process of cosmic IVF that aliens could use to make new planets.

Космическое ЭКО: Пришельцы искусственно «выращивают» планеты
Figure 1. An artist impression of cosmic IVF from

The possibility of life in outer space is something that fascinates us tremendously since people thought that other planets are in fact like Earth, a physical 3D spherical clump of matter instead of just something that brightens the sky at night. The next generation of giant telescopes will enable us for the first time to search for bio-signatures on planets around other stars than our own. The technology that MagAO-X is developing will enable such observations and I am glad that I can be part of the team to do this. While we are out trying to search for life on other planets, we should not forget that life on earth is also important and we all should contribute by staying home. And maybe that is also a place where you can find life.

Figure 2. A small bird nest in our backyard, with two baby birds.

Staying at home in Tucson is not bad. We have a nice spacious garden, which would not be possible in the Netherlands, and the weather is currently great (a good 25 to 30 degrees Celsius, I am not sure if I will ever get used to Fahrenheit). So we are enjoying our time at home, sitting on our patio looking at all the birds flying by and enjoying the nice weather while it lasts (I wonder whether our weak Dutch skin can handle the Tucson summer).

The song of the day has been inspired by the alien artist impression. The composition feels like a shot out of an alien boy band to me. Therefore, to keep some kind of connection to the blog post I have selected an iconic music video from the 90’s.