Spare Time

So what do astronomers do when it is cloudy/raining I hear you ask. They work diligently on writing papers and analysing data. Well, ok, tonight we have played lots of games of pool and table tennis. After looking up the rules of table tennis I am now full of useless trivia such as the height the ball has to be thrown upwards on a serve (16cm or more) and how much advertising you can have on your top (200sqcm). I learnt a few things such as how to count to ten in Japanese (so that I could keep score during a game against one of the Japanese astronomers) and to count to three in Zulu from Geoff who works at the observatory.

We have also been talking to a VIP who came to visit the observatory from some national advisory committee in South Africa. It turns out that he is an ophthalmologist who has Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher for patients. Inevitably he asked where we were from and so we told him we were from Manchester. It is amazing that this seems to have a similar response in different parts of the world as he then asked if I supported Man U.! The last time this happened was when I was in Poland. It is certainly a good conversation starter.

I must go and continue playing table tennis ... I mean I must go back to work.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 28th Sep 2003 (06:39 UTC) | Permalink

The curse of the cloud

Finally our CCD camera (AP47p) seems to be working. The other day we emailed Gaspar Bakos who seems to similar problems with Apogee CCDs (thank goodness for Google). He suggested a couple of things such as changing the dessicant (silica gel which keeps the humidity down in the camera).

We also emailed Wayne Brown, the president of Apogee, to see if he had any ideas as he apparently designs the CCD chips. He thought it looked like a problem with the chip and said he would be interested to find out what was causing it - so would we!

Anyway, yesterday we changed the dessicant and also cooled down the CCD very slowly (it goes down to 50 degrees below ambient temperature). For some reason this has more or less stopped most of the problems we were having and it now seems to be quite reasonable. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Now that it is working, it seems that the weather has decided to cause us problems. After four or five nights of nice clear skies, we now have a large amount of cloud and the wind has picked up (gusting to 60kph). The forecast is for rain tomorrow as well! Why does it always rain on me?!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 27th Sep 2003 (00:10 UTC) | Permalink

Observatory Photos

Our equipment gets worse and worse with Apogee support telling us to return the CCD camera to them and we we get it back in three weeks!

On the plus side, I have managed to get my pictures off my camera and onto the website. They can be found at: gallery/sa2003/.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 24th Sep 2003 (09:56 UTC) | Permalink

CCD problems

Tonight has been very annoying. It has been the best weather of the whole week (apart from an hour or so after 1am) and we are still having problems with our CCD camera (it is basically a very good/expensive version of the chip that you get in the back of a digital camera but designed for very sensitive work). Ours is made be Apogee Instruments who are normally very good, but we have had no end of trouble with this one (an AP47-p for those that are interested) all week. We reckon that part of it is down to a software problem (we are using something called Maxim DL) as we are sure that it is displaying the wrong temperature. When we switch it on it claims that the camera is at a temperature well below what it should be. The camera itself keeps playing up and displaying really bad images. We have written an email to the makers so hopefully they have some ideas. Our current theory is that it might be something to do with static affecting the electronics as the humidity has dropped a lot.

So the result is that we don't really have any proper images after 4 or 5 days. We really need to solve the camera problem tomorrow so that we can make the most of our second week.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 21st Sep 2003 (07:48 UTC) | Permalink

Late to bed, late to rise...

South Africa is in the same time zone so when I came here on Saturday/Sunday I shouldn't have suffered any jet lag. However a combination of a long journey and the fact that I am living on astronomer time, means that I have only just about recovered.

The last two nights I have got to bed after 6am and today (or is that yesterday?) I got up at 3pm! It is still only 4:22am (local time) but I think I will be going to bed shortly I want to be up in time for lunch later.

The weather has been pretty variable over the last few days. On Wednesday it was pretty miserable all day with rain, hail and thunder storms but it cleared up for several hours at about 9pm. Thursday was fine all day but the weather turned bad later in the night and is currently quite foggy. We certainly didn't have to worry about our car headlights affecting other observers on the way back down the mountain.

For the first few nights we have had trouble with our camera/computer but they seem to be working much better now. We have some final tests/setting up to do tomorrow and then, weather depending, we should start taking proper observations.

This evening we went for "coffee club" in the 1.9m telescope dome with Encarni and Patrick who are two postdocs (researchers) based in Cape Town. Between us we have three of the four main working telescopes on the mountain and we all look out for one another. As we are a long way from anywhere there is quite a community spirit and we usually ring each other up to say what the weather is doing (if you have the dome closed you don't realise that it has become clear) and to check that we are all still alive.

Right I must go off to bed as it is getting on for 4:45.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 19th Sep 2003 (07:41 UTC) | Permalink

Teething troubles

After breakfast at lunch time, Clive and I went up to our dome to setup the camera on the side of the telescope. We are not actually using the 1m mirror, just using the mounting to move our smaller instrument. It seems like a waste but ours is better for what we are doing.

This evening we did a lot of setting up and ran in to problems with our CCD camera (basically a fancier version of the thing that makes a digital camera work). For some reason the computer software was not cooling the chip like it should have been doing. After several house Clive finally discovered that it was a problem with the software. I was worrying that I might have bashed it during our flight as it came in my hand luggage. Luckily it didn't as they cost several thousand pounds.

By the time we had sorted out that problem, the cloud had come in and it was even difficult to spot Mars. Also the wind had got up to 60kph which is the limit for using the dome so we certainly couldn't do anything.

So in bad south african weather we came back to the lounge in the observatory hostel to play pool, read some papers and check email. The outlook for Cape Town for the next few days doesn't look promising either. A long range forecast I saw earlier on seemed to claim that it would be sunny next week.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 17th Sep 2003 (08:54 UTC) | Permalink
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