Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All in a Day's Work

So here is, in short, what I am doing this summer. I am going into the logbook for the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and making a database for component failures- as in, when stuff goes wrong- and then hopefully seeing correlations in what goes wrong and how it can be prevented. This will be good because I get to learn a lot about database structure and the ATA benefits by getting a good framework for their still-developing structure.

This is what the ATA looks like, by the way. There are currently 42 telescopes but there will be ~400 when it's all said and done, which is a fancy way of saying whenever a check comes in to build the rest of it. (On that note, anyone want to build a radio telescope? Only costs $120k, which is a relative bargain in this field.) Anyway, picture:

Close-up on one of the dishes-
In actuality, though, my job gets pretty interesting. First of all my mentor is Jill Tarter, the director of the SETI Institute, inspiration for the Ellie Arroway character in Contact and all around fascinating woman, and jobs are always more fun when your boss has pictures of her posing with Jodie Foster in her office and stuff like that. Second, the first week I was too busy to write because I got to go visit places like Berkeley (the ATA is being built in conjunction with the Berkeley Astronomy Department) and the engineering company where the Array is being built.

The best day by far to this point, though, was the day I got to go to Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California where the ATA is located. It's a 5.5 hour drive away from here, but it turns out Jill's husband (who is also a radio astronomer, at Berkeley) has a plane, and Berkeley allows you to use grant money towards fuel costs. Turns out that way it only takes about 2 hours to get to the Array from the Palo Alto airport, as a fellow student and I (and two astronomers, but they already knew this) found out...
Picture of the little Cessna, which technically sits six people but it seems cramped enough with four if you ask me. A few people were asking me apprehensively about the bumpiness of small planes (and I confess I didn't eat much breakfast that morning, just in case), but the weather in California is remarkably stable at this time of year so this wasn't much of an issue. It was only bumpy once when going over a ridge, but I confess the slight turbulence right then was enough to make me realize why small planes seem to crash so often- in non-perfect weather, it must really suck.
Typical "this is what California looks like from the air" picture. (It's all yellow, of course, because it hasn't rained in months so these are the famous golden hills of California.) There are huge patches of farmland too, of course, but I know everyone's seen enough of those from airplanes and it's not too exciting, so let's move on.
San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge from 10,000 feet (zoom in for a better look). The haze you see isn't haze at all of course, but rather the fog coming in for the night...

The fog is really impressive by the way, even if you wouldn't nessecarily think so. It doesn't get foggy down here, but when I went into the city last weekend on the train the fog was rolling over the mountains in such a dense, stealthy way that I would've guessed it was straight out of a horror movie if I didn't know any better.
When it flat-out doesn't rain for months, you inevitably get wildfires. This one was interesting because we hadn't seen it at all when flying up in the morning, but by the time we were flying back it was going full-steam and sending smoke thousands of feet into the air. Had to divert our course around it, actually...
An areal view of Lassen Volcanic National Park, easily viewable from the ground at the ATA. Most people don't realize this, but Mount Lassen was the second most recent volcano in the Cascades to erupt, in 1915 (the most recent, of course, being Mount St. Helens), in which it was described as having devastated the surrounding area. When I inquired at the Array site if this was indicative of a great place to build a multi-million dollar telescope array, this concerned was shrugged off. "It's either that or earthquakes" it was explained in a way only Californians can get away with.

I'd go on about Mount Lassen and the ATA, but excitingly I will be there next week again! The REU program does a weeklong field trip to Hat Creek/ Lassen for all the students every summer, which we're all very much looking forward to. Trust me, it's a gorgeous country up there, even if you never hear about it much for whatever reason.


Ann said...

:-) I have a similar airplane. was that a 210? a 206? We tend to find that it can fit 6 if 2 of them don't have legs, or are under the age of 6. And one gets pretty used to the turbulence. I once didn't notice it until it got too difficult to get the oreo into the mouth.

Ann said...

my bad, i'll stick with the guess of a 210.