Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 23

JESSE BALL

Part scientist, part engineer, and part therapist -
that's the job of telescope operators. Many large research
telescopes - from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawai'i
to the Boeing-borne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) - employ these jacks- and jillsof-all-trades. TOs, as they're commonly called, are tasked
with ensuring the perfect performance of a telescope and
its cadre of instruments. They spend their nights working on remote mountaintops and airborne observatories
as the liaisons between data-hungry astronomers and
complex telescopes worth millions of dollars.
TOs are an integral part of a big-scope observing run
because professional astronomers, for all their scientific
expertise, often use a particular telescope and instrument combination no more than a few nights each
year. These guest observers accordingly lack the day-in,
day-out practice of working with a specific telescope -
they might know the instrument's strengths, but not its
quirks. Focusing and locking on an astronomical target
are manageable tasks with your own backyard setup, but
navigating the complex software that research observatories use to accomplish these tasks is another matter. Furthermore, safely moving domes than can be 30 meters
across or larger, and knowing local weather well enough
to decide when to close down, takes a familiarity guest
observers don't have. And then there's the setup and
maintenance required to accommodate different observing programs, from switching out equipment to refilling
cryogenic instruments with liquid nitrogen or liquid
helium. These needs are similar at most observatories,
and having full-time staff on hand to address them - as
opposed to sleep-deprived astronomers unfamiliar with
a telescope and its instruments - is critical.
"We're really the expert users of the telescope," says
Jesse Ball, a TO at the Gemini North telescope in Hawai'i.
"We're expected to learn how all of the instruments and
telescope subsystems work together to be able to quickly
and effectively troubleshoot any issues at night." Coupled
with the vision and curiosity of the observers, TOs' skills
help make astronomical discoveries possible.

Observing sessions can depend upon a TO's quick thinking and arsenal of skills. Not surprisingly, many TOs hold
undergraduate degrees in physics, astronomy, or engineering, and have often completed additional coursework
in computer science. TOs are accordingly well prepared to
tackle a range of engineering and software problems.
Their astronomy knowledge also enables TOs to better
understand the telescopic data and work collaboratively
and diplomatically with astronomers. Given the scarcity
of observing time available at large observatories, astronomers treat their nights on a telescope as a precious
resource, something that can make or break a graduate
student's thesis or pave the way to a successful career.

TOP OF THE WORLD Jesse Ball (top) shepherds telescopes at
Gemini North in Hawai'i (bottom, at sunset). Here he stands on
the observing deck; in the background, left to right, are the Subaru
Telescope, the twin Keck scopes, and the Infrared Telescope Facility.

Sk yandTelescope.com March 2016

GEMINI OBSERVATORY

Hands-on at the Telescope

23


http://www.SkyandTelescope.com

Sky and Telescope - March 2016

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky and Telescope - March 2016

Contents
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover1
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover2
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 1
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Contents
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 3
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - A
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - B
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 4
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 5
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 6
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 7
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 8
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 9
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 10
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 11
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Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover3
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover4
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