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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our 24 hour MagAO-X clean up effort has just finished up around dinner time. MagAO-X is off of Clay. After sleeping various amounts of not-enough today, the whole team is more than ready for some sweet sweet shut eye. Hopefully now unbothered by nightmares of 2.0 arcsecond seeing or cart assembly.
The night crew finished up their white dwarf spotting at sunrise, just in time to get to de-cabling on the catwalk. Laird and I, having slept some of the night (as apposed to none), swapped with them to get MagAO-X carted off the platform and back into it’s clean room home. We’re pretty proud about how quickly we got out of their hair! Instrument: moved, cables: piled, and megadesk: disassembled. Don’t ask us about the clean room. Enjoy the photos of the process, knowing that the whole gang is now sleeping soundly as I post:
Tomorrow Laird and Logan head off to La Serena for their USA flights. (They’re good and ready to head home.) Jared, Avalon and I will be hanging around an extra day to tidy up some. The run’s not over till the last of us leave, I guess.
As a bonus, I’ve added some of the 100″ videos I took on the tour with Alycia. (I love telescopes moving almost as much as I love louvers opening.)
Song of the Day
Vintage Postmodern Jukebox actually has a bunch of even better covers you can check out, but I have a Song-of-the-day point to make.
Tonight marks the end of our time on sky for the 2022B run. Though we have had a bit of a rough week of seeing, humidity, etc., tonight we scored some decent conditions and got to do some of the science we’ve all been eager to do.
Eden and Alycia got to visit the 100″ down the hill from the Magellans this afternoon. I would have gone with them but had a final to study for!
Jared also made friends with a LCO resident.
And Carla has returned with more astronomer snacks!
We forgot to take a group photo at the beginning of the night, and failed to all be located in the same place at once this morning – so we will take a victory photo for you viewers in the near future.
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 https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2015/04/16/g-hat-searching-for-kardashev-type-iii/ 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:
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 collaboratorsandI 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:
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.
Today’s song of the day poses a question: is it a Daughtry cover if he never sings?