In a strange twist of fate, the one person who is mostly likely to leave a party awkwardly early in order to go to bed (a.k.a. me) was tasked with staying up all night at the observatory to help with an observing run.
The main Rubin Observatory is still under construction, but we have a working smaller telescope that we use right now to test control algorithms and data processing and such. Between various team members being away on vacation and some untimely covid cases, there was only one astronomer available for last Thursday night’s shift and they needed another person because two people are required to be in the observatory at all times when observing. So that’s how I found myself in the control room at midnight wondering how I was going to stay awake for the next seven hours until sunrise.
Thursday June 30th
3:15 pm – My colleague Ioana and I arrive at the observatory on the afternoon bus and get antigen tests, and I immediately scarf down the lunch I didn’t have time to eat when I was rushing around my apartment before leaving.
4:00 pm – We walk up to the small-ish auxiliary telescope that we’ll be using for the night, and Ioana starts testing the dome, the mirror covers, the instruments, the telescope, etc. while I help/watch and learn.
4:15 pm – The temperature sensors aren’t working and Ioana turns to the mechanical engineer in the room. Oh wait, that’s me. Whelp. I look at a nest of wires coming out of a microcontroller and a breadboard and take a deep breath.
4:45 pm – We found the short! I wrap some of the connections with electrical tape to make sure it doesn’t happen again and carefully tuck the wires back into their nest for the night.
5:45 pm – The telescope won’t rotate. Why? Because the cable tray that extends out pretty far radially got caught in my chair, awkward. I move it to the outer edge of the dome where it won’t interfere.
6:00 pm – We line up a flat white screen on the dome with a red light and point the telescope in that direction in order to take some calibration images.
6:15 pm – The sun is below the horizon, so we open the dome, point to east (away from the setting sun), and start taking more calibrations. This also allows the dome to cool down to the ambient temperature, which is cold. Did I mention it’s wintertime?
6:30 pm – Dinner! In the main observatory which is much warmer.
7:00 pm – We finish taking test images. At this point we’re ready for observation, which mostly involves the software controlling the telescope and us sitting around monitoring the components and the weather as well as monitoring the images as they come in.
10:00 pm – I’ve been yawning for an hour already and there are still nine to go until sunrise. This is gonna be rough.
10:45 pm – Telescope mount faults and the telescope stops moving and taking images. We don’t notice because the status screen in the control room shows that everything is fine but in fact the screen is frozen, which we didn’t realize. Phone volume in the control room is all the way down (which we also didn’t know) so colleagues in Tucson who did actually notice the fault can’t get in touch with us. The messaging app we use (slack) also has notifications set to silent at night by default so both Ioana and I don’t see the messages sent by colleagues in Tucson right away. Luckily we notice the messages and the fault after several minutes and fix it, but it’s still an annoying cascade of failures.
10:50 pm – I finally outsmart the telephone and figure out how to change the ringtone as well as raise the volume. One problem solved.
Friday July 1st
12:00 am – Woohoo, new wordle!
12:01 am – Ok solved it, what now?
2:00 am – Maybe some hot chocolate will make me feel better and get rid of this raging headache.
2:02 am – IT’S TOO HOT
2:04 am – Finally, perfect temperature. I have exactly 30 seconds to drink this hot-but-not-burning chocolate before it cools down to lukewarm. Why are hot drinks so hard to manage.
2:05 am – I wish I brought another packet of hot chocolate.
3:30 am – The powerpoint I am working on for a new pumped coolant system for the main observatory is getting blurry and my face hurts. I am not cut out for this observer life.
4:00 am – Telescope hasn’t faulted in a while and is running smoothly so I go for a walk outside to look at the stars and get refreshed by the crisp night air. Turns out observatories are built in super dark places and I can’t see anything but I don’t want to turn on a light because I want my eyes to adjust eventually so I trip down a step and run headfirst into a pickup truck parked outside the main observatory entrance. Good way to wake up, I recommend it.
4:10 am – I can see! The sky is so pretty, I should do this every night. lol.
5:00 am – Man, I really wanted to get this powerpoint done before the end of the night but also it’s freakin five o’clock in the morning and how is anyone supposed to be productive at this hour?!
6:00 am – DONE LET’S GOOOO! With the powerpoint, not the night shift, but still, progress.
6:15 am – I just looked up the official sunrise time and it’s SEVEN FORTY AM holy smokes I thought for sure I was almost done for the night. I definitely need to observe during the summer next time around so the nighttime is shorter. I suppose that’s what I get for taking a night shift so close to the winter solstice.
6:45 am – Another fault, the telescope azimuth (rotational) drives aren’t working and this time we can’t fix it. Since there is only a half-hour or so of observing left for the night, we decide to shut down and close everything up and go sleep for a few hours before the bus takes us down the mountain. The day crew will take care of the problem. Suckers. (Just joking, it’s a normal part of the job, things break all the time.)
7:15 am – I have never been so happy to flop onto a bed, even if I only get to be there for three hours before I have to wake up again.
It’s been a long time since I was awake for 24 hours straight. In college I only pulled one all-nighter, which I define as staying up until sunrise. I finished my biology lab report and slept for a few hours before class and vowed never to ever do that again, a streak that has been unbroken until now.
I’m well aware that any Chileans reading this post are laughing at me because here it’s super normal to party until sunrise, while I only stayed up late for professional reasons. For example, I went to a birthday party last year and left around 2am and all my friends were congratulating me on how late I managed to stay up (normally I’m out of there by midnight) even though they ended up staying out until 5 or 6am. You can see why it’s hard for a nerdy gringa to fit in here sometimes.
So, I guess overall it was fine and I survived and even learned a fair bit. I’d be happy to help out in the future if they need someone (also it’s the nice thing to do, helping out and covering for colleagues etc.) but please please please let it be summertime for the next night shift.