Observation Run at KPNO (Mar 2017)

My colleague Ariel and I went to KPNO near Tucson for our observation run just right before the spring break.

Day 1 (Mar 21)

The flight from LAX to Tucson was ~ 8 am, so I had to wake up at ~ 5:15 am, and then quickly packed up my backpack. After eating some leftover bánh trôi in the fridge, I set off to catch the 6am Flyaway At the Westwood. Within half an hour, I arrived at LAX, where I met Ariel an hour later. The flight was smooth. On board I recognizes your destination – KPNO in distance, thanks to the super obvious signature just next to KPNO,  Baboquivari Peak. Of course all the domes appeared as small what dots merely.

We took a Uber to the KPNO in downtown Tucson, on campus of University of Arizona. Since the shuttle wouldn’t leave until 11 am, Ariel and I walked around the campus very briefly, but soon we decided not to continue because the temperature was scorching. Actually I’ve visited the campus three years ago during the DPS. However, it was at night so I didn’t see things clearly. It turned out to be that Ariel and I were the only two persons going to KP, and Ariel had to drive the shuttle.

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The bicentennial Moon tree in UA’s campus. Last time I saw it in dark.

The drive was ~1.5 hrs. The weather atop KP was visually perfect, although the wind was pretty strong. Starving we were, we devoured quite a lot at the cafeteria. We then went to the 36″ dome, waiting for Flynn, who showed up ~2:30 pm and gave us some very brief instructions on operating the dome and the telescope. Basically we still remember every procedure because our last visit was three months ago only. Flynn mentioned that recently there have been several reports of bear and mountain lion witness around KP and asked us to be cautious.

Ariel and I were both exhausted, so we went back to the dorm and took a nap. After dinner, we met at the dome and started working. Ariel arrived earlier. When I got there, she was taking flats already. Having adjusted the focus of the telescope by taking images of θ Gem, we started observations. Our targets were all comets, SPCs and LPCs. We did plan to observe some unusual asteroids with TJ < 2, including several Damocloids, but eventually didn’t have enough time. During the early run, we unconsciously stuck the telescope because the pointing exceeded the minimum altitude limit twice. As a result, the telescope had to be manually slewed by me through a control panel upstairs. We have now been experts on this!

We observed a PCCP object YF982D7 through BVRI filters. I quickly calibrated all the images, and measured astrometry. No cometary feature can be seen from our coadded images. It finally was designated as 2017 EF12 by the MPC on Day 3, so the cometary feature wasn’t confirmed at all. I’m wondering if some observer has been fooled by bad seeing. Otherwise it’d be quite interesting and exciting, were it a comet; it has a low-eccentricity orbit, and the semimajor axis is small too.

Before daybreak, we attempted to observe several newly discovered comets, such as C/2017 E4 (Lovejoy), only to realise that the influence from the Moon was awfully serious, so had to give up. The observing run ended at ~5:40 am, when the twilight became too strong.

After taking a shower, I went to bed and felt asleep soon.

Day 2 (Mar 22)

I woke up several times around noon, and forced me to sleep. Finally I got up at 4 pm and went to have dinner (breakfast in reality). The weather had been overcast, but the cloud dispersed and revealed a crystal clear sky before sunset. I went to the dome and met Ariel there. Again she was taking flats.

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The scene around Baboquivari in the south viewed from the dome.

As the twilight faded, we began the observing run with the synoptic observation about a variable star in the region of M42, which happened to be the only observed target tonight. As soon as we finished taking BVRI images of it, we saw the instruction of shutting down the dome, due to the strong wind and rising humidity. So we did. The humidity went up quickly and reached ~100% later. Ariel left the dome around 2 am, and I left around 4 am.

On the way back I felt the ambience a bit horrible. The smog was pretty strong; I could hardly see things beyond ~5 m even with a torchlight. The gust kept producing weird noise. Anyway, I successfully made my way to the cafeteria, and ate some hot soups there.

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The spicy chicken soup.

Before I went to bed, it started raining. What a night!

Day 3 (Mar 23)

Again I woke up several times before the time I planned to get up. This is equivalent to suffering from jet-lag. Before I went to have my dinner, there were considerable amounts of clouds in the sky. But fortunate enough, they dispersed towards dusk. The temperature was also much colder.

We still had plenty of time after having finished taking flats. To kill the time I was busy calibrating images from Day 1 and performing astrometry. Of course I couldn’t finish the all before the sky got dark enough. So we adjusted the focus. I should point out that seeing was extremely awful. However we changed the focus, images of field stars looked fat. Anyway we began the observing run with 128P, which somehow appeared fainter than expected, perhaps due to the fact that the twilight was still there a bit.

Around 9:30 pm, a staff (I forgot his name) brought some visitors into our dome, showing them “what astronomers are doing”. It didn’t last for long, and they left within ~15 min. We then concentrate back on imaging comets. During the run we did attempt to observe Damocloid 2015 RK245, but we couldn’t spot it in individual images.

Before the end, we observed comet C/2017 E4 (Lovejoy), which appeared super bright. Judging from the morphology, it’s a gassy one. It moved pretty fast too. We obtained 10-ish images, which did give us enough SNR of it. We finally challenged the telescope a bit by observing another bright comet C/2017 E1 (Borisov) — then the twilight had been quite strong already. We did get it, but way less impressive than C/2017 E4, maybe because of the bright sky background. The session ended at ~5:45 am. The slender crescent moon looked amazing in the eastern sky.

Day 4 (Mar 24)

Maybe I’m really aging; I again woke up first at 12pm, and then woke up every hour. I dreamed a lot, probably due to which I didn’t sleep well. Anyway, the weather for this observing run appeared to be the best since we arrived at KP; the humidity was low enough, <~ 40%, basically windless, and the temperature was pretty steady, ~9 ℃. As a result, seeing was way better than on Day 3.

We began the observing run from comet C/2010 U3 (Boattini), in Perseus, followed by the synoptic observation of the M42 field. Comet C/2017 C1 (NEOWISE) was observed successfully. Originally we expected it to be faint, since no one had observed it since Feb, but it turned out to be a good one. It was readily visible in individual images, moving fast. The synoptic observation also required us to observe a field containing ρ Oph, so we wasted some time on this.

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My night lunch for Day 4. The highlight is that spoon. Because I couldn’t find a spoon, I had to make one from foil. It looked fancy, even like from the antiquity, but actually functioned awfully…

The session was ended with C/2017 E1 (Borisov). Compared to Day 3, we were able to get two more images before the twilight was too bright.

Day 5 (Mar 25)

I slept a bit better today, at least my first wakeup was close to 1pm. I could clearly remember what I dreamed during the sleep — my family, and my calligraphy teacher 張老師, and his master pieces. He suffered from a stroke last Sept, resulting in weak disability of his right arm. Since then I had had quite a lot of dreams, in which he had convalesced and could write things as before. But a good thing is that I’ve heard that he’s getting better and better.

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Pano pic of KP, taken by my phone.

The late afternoon witnessed a considerable amount of clouds. But thanks to them, I enjoyed a spectacular sunset. The clouds were like burnt, against a violet background of the sky. As time evolved they changed their shapes. I was simply standing outside and looking at the sky, doing nothing else. As one of my favourite things in my childhood which I did a lot was looking at the sky during sunsets, the scene certainly brought me back, just like yesterday once more. I thought I were only a little kid at a moment.

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The awesome sunset view, taken by my phone.

I went back into the dome after the show faded. The clouds were great decorations during the sunset, but form a bad thing for our observing run. The dome was shut down because of them. We had to wait till ~11 pm until the sky turned clear. Our first target was 315P, which displayed a fan-shaped broad tail. A super bright comet we observed was C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS), which was initially discovered as an asteroid by Pan-STARRS, but later a cometary feature was found.

This day’s observing run ended again by observing C/2017 E1. Earlier, our advisor Dave emailed us asking whether we’d observed it; it might be a potentially disintegrating candidate due to the rotational instability. Frankly I didn’t think about this point, but just thought that we shall observe it to improve the orbit; the current solution was still pretty nasty, because we saw a significant discrepancy between the observed and predicted positions. Anyway, this time we put more efforts to this comet, and we were able to obtain seven R-band images on it.

Before going back to the dorm, we saw the very elegantly thin crescent Moon rising in the east.

Day 6 (Mar 26)

I finally managed to adapt to the timezone for astronomers, which is good. But unfortunately it was the last day of our observing trip, which is bad.

We planned to end the whole KP observing run by observing C/2017 E1 again. However, for some reason an attempt image showed that the image quality couldn’t be even more nasty, and thus we decided to observe C/2013 C2 (Tenagra), which was predicted to be bright enough, provided that the prediction didn’t go wrong. It hadn’t been observed for almost a year, based on the MPC. So we did. But we couldn’t see anything obvious, so at least it wasn’t that bright. I haven’t yet reduced the data. Maybe something will show up, hopefully.

It’d been pretty bright at the time we shut down the dome. I knew that Venus should be visible, so on the way back we searched for it for awhile. Indeed we managed to spot it by naked eye! It just passed the inferior conjunction with the Sun a day ago! This definitely becomes my record of seeing Venus closest to the Sun during non-transits by naked eye. Alas my camera was left in my office, a bit pity.

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Before I left the dome, I drew a super ugly graffiti of a man’s head. It used to be a maze but then I thought it was kinda boring. Some observers might feel asleep during observing runs, so putting something on like this horrible may help them stay awake. I’m considerate, ain’t I?

I got up at noon the next day. Before we left the mountain I grabbed something for lunch. After checking out, Ariel and I drove back to downtown Tucson at 2 pm, and then took a Uber to the airport. Our flight was ~5:15 pm and landed in LAX an hour later. So the whole trip came to an end, but I still have to reduce and measure all the images from Day 6.

Observation Run at KPNO (Mar 2017)