Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 26

S&T: KELLY BEATTY

GABRELLE SAURAGE

Behind the Scenes

FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS Left: Telescope operators aboard SOFIA have to not only watch the telescope controls but also pay
attention to turbulence and airspace restrictions. Right: Telescope operator Gabrelle Saurage stands on the gangway to SOFIA's 747.

Gemini North, Ball and some astronomers were observing in extremely windy conditions, probably 20 meters
per second (45 mph). All telescopes have different "closing
limits," and Gemini North's is 22.5 meters per second. "As
you can imagine, an 8-meter piece of glass can really catch
the wind," Ball says. "We could barely hold onto a guide
star and were just about to give up and close the dome."
But right then Ball and his team received word of a
gamma-ray burst, a short-lived event for which followup at other wavelengths really matters. They decided to
go ahead and attempt to observe the burst. "We didn't
see anything in the visible filters, but we decided to try
our near-infrared imager just in case," remembers Ball.
"Sure enough, we got it!"
Thanks to these observations, as well as data from
several other observatories, astronomers determined that
the gamma-ray burst was one of the most distant sources
ever imaged, with a redshift of 8.2. That means the star
that died to produce the gamma-ray burst blew up less
than 650 million years after the Big Bang.

In Thin Air
TOs like Ball and Aycock, who work on mountaintop
observatories, must be prepared to do their jobs in thin
air. Mauna Kea, home of the Keck and Gemini North telescopes, among others, is 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) high;
there's 40% less oxygen at the summit than at sea level.
But TOs don't live at the summit; they have to constantly
push their bodies to acclimatize to changes in altitude.
Visiting astronomers, on the other hand, only work at
mountaintop summits for a few nights each year. Some
observatories, such as Keck, even limit astronomers to
observing from lower-elevation, remote-observing rooms.
Because TOs generally work a few days at a time
and then have a few days off, they're always changing
elevation. Ball and Aycock commute regularly from their
homes, first to Hale Pohaku - the mid-level facility
26

March 2016 sky & telescope

on Mauna Kea at 9,200 feet where they eat and sleep
during their shifts - and then to the summit for each
night's observing run. "I calculated my 'average' elevation once - the number of hours I spend at sea level, at
Hale Pohaku, and on the summit - and it worked out to
something like 9,000 feet," says Aycock. That's well into
the high elevation range that can trigger mild altitude
sickness if people don't take time to acclimate.
A typical work schedule for Aycock involves driving to
Hale Pohaku from his home - a 90-minute commute -
at the beginning of his 5-night shift. He eats an evening
meal in the Hale Pohaku common room with other TOs
and astronomers and then departs for the summit at
roughly 5 p.m., depending on the season. The drive to the
Keck telescopes takes 20-30 minutes, mostly by dirt road.
Aycock makes sure to arrive at the summit at least 30
minutes before sunset to ensure that the telescope, dome,
and instruments being used that night are ready to go.
Since TO work often involves acclimatizing to significant changes in elevation - not to mention disruption
of circadian rhythm - the job isn't for everyone. But
some TOs couldn't think of a better job and savor the
freedom that the work affords.

Not Your Average Observatory
All observatories function slightly differently, and many
TOs work at several telescopes over the course of their
careers. Gabrelle Saurage, who holds an undergraduate
physics degree with an emphasis on astrophysics, has
been a TO for four different observatories over the course
of 14 years: McDonald Observatory in Texas, W. M. Keck
Observatory in Hawai'i, Apache Point Observatory in New
Mexico, and now the SOFIA telescope aboard a Boeing
747SP jumbo jetliner (S&T: April 2015, p. 60).
"Working on a 747 is nothing short of awesome," says
Saurage. "We wear flight suits, talk on headsets, and see
exotic lands."



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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