MagAO-X 2023A Bonus Feature: Santiago de Chile

I didn’t get into academic astronomy to travel, but I didn’t get into academic astronomy to avoid travel, you know what I mean?

I’m bringing the good ship Ph.D. into port in the very near future, and I have been to Chile some six times (should have been more, but thanks covid) without having seen more than observatories and airports (again, thanks covid).

After a month away from home I was exhausted and had a to-do list as long as my arm, but I decided if I didn’t take some personal travel now I never would. In the spirit of MagAO-X 2022B Day 3: An astronomer’s guide to Valparaíso, Chile, I present 2.5 days in Santiago de Chile.

I gratefully acknowledge the advice and suggestions of Dr. Matías Díaz (lately of drone-piloting fame) and the MagAO-X Chilean Cultural Attaché Dr. Susana Henriquez.

Day 0:

On Sunday the 19th, we left the observatory. A van transported us and the luggage of a one-month stay (multiplied by four people) from Las Campanas down to La Serena airport.

We obtained Kunstmann Torobayo (times four) and papas fritas, as is tradition.

Sebastiaan, Jared, Jeb of the XKIDS, Eden, and myself at La Ultima Llamada (La Serena Airport bar)

After a short hop to Santiago airport, I parted ways from the rest of the MagAO-X team.

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MagAO-X 2023A Day 24: Homeward Bound

Well that was better. After our December run (trucking strike followed by extremely bad luck with the spatial power spectrum) we were all holding our breath for this run. This time, we got a good week in the cleanroom to tune MagAO-X up, and Cerro Manqui cooperated — delivering 0.27″ seeing at one point. As documented in previous posts, we got a huge amount of work done. We also detected a whole bunch of planets.

MagAO-X Phase 1 commissioning is now complete. XKID was the last thing on the official list, but we also got to the point where we can confidently act like a real instrument. We can point at a star, lock the high-order loop, align a coronagraph, lock the low-order loop, and start taking data, and do it all night long. We can target hop efficiently (for Alycia anyway). We’re achieving contrasts with “e-6” in them, and we are working within 2 lambda/D of stars (though not yet at the same time).

Don’t worry though, the excitement will continue. Everybody says the X in MagAO-X stands for eXtreme. But it really means eXperimental. Kinda like the the Billy o’ Tea, we’re never going to be done commissioning — because we don’t know what we don’t know and are still figuring out what works. The only way to find out is to keep coming back for more.

Here’s a viscacha doing an impression of the current state of the MagAO-X instrument and its keepers:

We’re all starting to blue shift.

After breakfast today we finished packing up. That meant putting the front door on the big box which holds the optical table, and then loading our electronics into its box and doing the always exciting dance with gravity to get it into the shipping position.

Smooth Criminal.
Apparently $1M worth of electronics being on a forklift isn’t as interesting as Sebastiaan’s footwear.

I was given permission to post a pic of myself “being PI”:

Look, if I bust out the label maker it was for a damn good reason and I f-ing meant it. T.B.C. the problem was bad threads on that lifting eye which make it extremely difficult to remove. To quote a wise man, “I’m not even mad…

After the exciting crane ops, the more tedious stuff has to get done. Applying shipping labels (which involves cleaning first) and bolting down various lifting fixtures we don’t want the shippers to use in transit (our entering assumption: if they can find a way to destroy it, they’ll do it).

Joseph cleans a spot for a new shipping label while I idiot proof some lifting fixtures that are for us only.
Eden attaching MagAO-X’s home address in case it gets lost and forgets.

After a quick tidy-up in the clean room, we’re finally bound for home.

LCO is an amazing place, with the best seeing in the world (… most of the time), gorgeous sunsets, comfy beds and great food, an awesome crew, and it somehow doubles as a zoo.

A pack of wild dogs ranged over the observatory this morning. I’ve seen a solitary dog run by up here before, but not a whole pack.
Right before I left an agave in our yard started to put up a stalk. I’m excited to get home to see how it’s going — even though it’s a bitter sweet display.
The internet knows this as “the spirit animal” pose. In my experience it’s actually kinda rare.

Laird hit the road after lunch:

Packing done, time to go.
Jay and Jialin are home. But studying needed to get studied even in the UA club in Houston.
Post-packing malaise.

Our last sunset for 2023A — 2023 in total — was as amazing as always:

We’ll be back — wait until you see what’s next.
One last breakfast.
Venus is still with us. Her friends have moved on after the spectacular “winter” display.

I brought up The Wellerman during our last-night-that-wouldn’t-end because I’ve been listening to Colm McGuinness a lot since my last “end of run” post. I think I gave Eden the wrong impression though: I wasn’t aware of whatever happened on Tik-Tok vis-a-vis sea shanties and t.b.h. am not at all disappointed that she wasn’t either.

Being even more honest, and probably ironic, I don’t actually like sea shanties as a genre. Mainly because it’s usually done in that comedic irish pub style where for some reason someone hiccups during each verse. But the songs are actually working songs, sung to pass the time or keep the beat during dangerous and hard work, far and long from home with only the hostile sea for company. (let’s leave aside that few of the songs we’re talking about here are actually shanties . . . )

I “discovered” Colm McGuinness last December because of his My Mother Told Me. Which is not a shanty, but I have to say Colm seems to get it the way I get it: these are songs that deserve a little bit of epic flare. Examples: Roll Boys Roll and Santiana. [Dude also does an amazing Jolene, background here].

Before going further, note that this all fits in my series of “music I rocked to with Ben” b/c I recently got into sea-oriented music when he sent this with the assertion that they are what we (including two other friends from high school) would look like if we decided to start a sea shanty band. YMMV. (longer story includes that Home Free recently played in Brookings South Dakota, the official hometown of MagAO).

Anyway, the song of the day is a ballad about the journey home from a long and arduous adventure at sea. I love this job, and we’re doing something amazing as a team. I think we’re on the road to achieving our very lofty goals. But every time we do this thing we do at LCO, I have to acknowledge that “it’s a damn tough life, full of toil and strife, we AOistas undergo…”

Colm McGuinness “Old Maui”

Thank god, we’re homeward bound.

MagAO-X 2023A Day 23: Until the very last photon

This is the time of night an astronomer’s workday would be in full gear, but dear reader, your favorite astronomers are all home or tucked into their LCO beds, dreaming sweet dreams. The MagAO-X team, working 24 hours since you heard from us last, have observed our last target, removed our instrument from the telescope, safely trucked it to the clean room, and started to pack it away for its long trip back home.

The last catwalk sunset
Jay enjoying the last of our Clay dome-openings

In this great relay race, Jared, Sebastian and I were the night team. As the rest of our team hit the hay around midnight, our noble observing efforts were met by some of the worse seeing of the run (after 22B, we do feel lucky to only have one or two nights to complain about, instead of the whole run). Around 1, Jared jinxed us with “At this rate, it’s going to be terrible all night and clear up to 0.5 arc-seconds right before we try to close.” In the great cosmic comedy the universe plays on worn-out astronomers, turns out he couldn’t have been more right:

Hitting 1.5as and 0.5 on the same night…

Seems like LCO weather agrees with my high school track coach, you can’t give up the race right before the finish line. So the night team observed until the sun declared our time up, and only then did we begin the task of shut-down and de-cabling.

The mega monitor, without anything to monitor.

We passed the baton to Laird and Joseph around 8 in the morning, and I’m told that the craning, carting, tethering, trucking and boxing all went well. I can only tell you what I heard because once Jared gave me the all clear, I sleepwalked straight down the hill into bed. Though I was solidly asleep for the rest of the day-time packing work, the successes did not go undocumented:

MagAO-X on the move
aaaannnd…. safe!
Optics: bagged and locked

Right before dinner, when I finally woke up, we were much further along into packing than Jared had feared we would be. Huge thank you the LCO crew who got us off the telescope so quickly, then helped us even more this afternoon to get MagAO-X in its shipping box. After a leisurely meal, the AZ crew headed back to the clean room and started corralling our doodads into the right corners.

Saran wrapping the electronics rack
Cables – managed

We start again bright and early at 8:30am to finish prepping ourselves and the instrument for the long flight to Tucson. Think of us, as we all try the magic trick of switching to a day schedule on a days’ notice.

With things going smoothly, we seem to now have this mythical thing called “free time” and with it the team sneaked in a little wildlife spotting:

Good morning, Guanaco! from Joseph
Farewell, fox family! from Jialin
The noble astrono-vizz

With these fancy new phone cameras, some team members are getting particularly good at the artistic type of astro-photography:

But wait! Where did Jialin and Jay go?? Rumor has it they got out just in time, and are having plenty of good adventuring before their 24hr journey to the US. Travel safe friends! See you Tucson.

Some pre-airport fun

Song of the day:

As we watched the seeing mysteriously dip last night just as we thought about calling it, Jared goes “you know that song, the Wellerman”? To Jared’s surprise and chagrin, I had completely missed the entire TikTok trend of covering this New-Zeland Sea ballad. It became popularized by Scottish singer Nathan Evans around 2021 but the original tune can be tracked back to the 1830s. It loosely follows a Moby Dick-esq narrative of a whaling ship being dragged along by an unattainable whale. Jared goes on to explain that the tantalizing 0.5 arc second seeing is our white whale, dragging us on until the last possible photon. With the night and the run ending, this felt more true than ever.

“The Wellerman” seems like a fitting song of the day, and of course I have heard it, all it took to remember was a quick search. How could I forget it? I love a good folk tune… love a Scottish accent… but wow I love a old sea song! What the conversation with Jared reminded me of is that, though I don’t really care for metal, heavy metal, etc… I LOVE Pirate metal. People yelling in general angst? I’ll pass. People yelling about the high seas? Sign me up. A fellow friend in the AO research field and bassist in their own right introduced me to Alestorm a few years ago, an Scottish band that exclusively does pirate metal. I haven’t gotten to see them in concert… YET, but I take this band as the single most impactful recommendation music-wise I’ve ever gotten. So in honor of our telescopes and how successful this run has been, I’ve picked their song “Magellan’s Expedition” for today.

“Magellan’s Expedition” by Alestorm

As a bonus, here is Alestorm covering “The Wellerman” because of course they did, everyone covered it, even Kids Bop 2022.

“The Wellerman” covered by Alestorm

MagAO-X 2023A Day 22: Above and beyond

This evening Dr. Matías Díaz, a support astronomer here at Las Campanas Observatory, helped us take a next-level team photo.

Thanks for taking the video with your drone, Matías!

Of course, we have more people in our group than pictured, and by the time we visit again in 2024A (!) we’ll probably have even more new members. By then I will have decamped for the Flatiron Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York, but it’s famously hard to see stars there. Maybe they’ll invite me back.

It’s our last night on sky, which is always bittersweet. Tomorrow’s a long day of removing from the telescope. So, what have we got to show for the past 22 days?

  • 14 terabytes of high-contrast astronomical data (and counting)
  • a new observing mode that keeps light where it should be, allowing us to pass these savings on to the consumer (shout-out to Ms. Lowfs)
  • a handle on our induced DM ✨sparkles✨, which will let us unravel the profound mysteries of pyramids (thanks Eden McSparkles)
  • a lot of improvements to VIS-X (gaan met de banaan, Dr. Haffert)
  • one new extreme-AO-fed instrument (shout-out to Noah & the Ex-Kids, opening for Weezer on tour this summer)

We’re about to commission our knife-edge coronagraph, but this blog post can’t wait. It’s time for the prospective students to choose their Ph.D. institutions, and we must put our best foot (feet?) forward.

Song of the Day

“Anemone” by Brian Jonestown Massacre

I went to a liberal arts college, which makes some people assume I didn’t study physics or something. In fact, astronomy is one of the quadrivium of artes liberales, and my college had a Department of Mathematics and Astronomy before it had a physics one. It’s physics now, though. So there.

Still, a smaller student body and more flexibility in courses of study meant some interesting cross-pollination between departments. One of my classmates in Advanced Intro Astronomy was named Maurissa, and she was actually a music major. She took astronomy with us, but she also had a band, did stuff with electronics, and was in a Balinese gamelan ensemble. Anyway, she was the one who introduced me to Brian Jonestown Massacre, the above psych-rock band with good vibes.

Bonus Song of the Evening

Sometimes you don’t need something musically interesting, and swoopy synths suffice. Anyway, the blog title reminded me, and after all—we are almost home.

“Almost Home” by Above & Beyond and Justine Suissa

MagAO-X 2023A Day 21: The Wind Down

Whelp, it’s getting to be that time. The sun is rising as I type, and it’s officially the 16th. Tonight is our last night on the Clay for 2023A, and tomorrow morning we tear it all apart, box it up, and GTFO.

Another night of awesome seeing let us all catch up on some coding and analysis.

Several coronagraphs where harmed in the making of this image (or at least made to deliver).
And note that none of us were the ones actually studying.
The cleanroom Viznitches were there to say hi as I walked up.
Uno Dos

The conclusion of my concert story, which started with the surprise KoRn and went though an awful Marilyn Manson performance, is the band we actually went to see: Danzig. It was every bit as good as one could hope. We were right in front for the whole show. At one point Glenn Danzig reached out and clasped Ben’s hand – legendary. Here is Danzig’s iconic “Mother”:

Danzig “Mother”. Sorry if you have to “Watch on YouTube”