Observing Trip to San Pedro Martir, Baja California, Mexico

I went on an observing run to the UNAM-OAN (Observatorio Astronomico Nacional) telescopes at San Petro Martir, in northern Baja. The observatory itself is at 9200 feet -- about 400 feet higher than our house in Mexico City! However, the site is extremely dark -- TJ and Ensenada are not visible at all -- making it maybe one of the darkest sites in N. America. The weather is allegedly also very good: they often have clouds during the day, but it clears up consistently at night. The observatory has three telescopes -- 2.1 m, 1.5 m, and 0.84 m.

Observing with Eduardo de la Fuente (multi-madre), we did light curve monitoring of a handful of AGN (active galactic nuclei) sources identified by the GLAST satellite, in orbit around the Earth. AGNs are galaxies with massive black holes at their centers, and they are giving off explosions of gamma rays. The deal is that GLAST detects the gamma ray bursts, and then sends out alerts to ground-based observers to start monitoring this galaxy. With enough teams doing this, at enough wavelengths, on enough sources, one can eventually piece together the physics of how the AGNs work.

Also see the cool timelapse movie of the sky I did from the 1.5 m dome.

Show all images with captions

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Ensenada and driving to the telescope

I flew to Tijuana and took a bus to Ensenada, where I stayed for the night.
From there it's a 4-hour ride in a <i>picup</i> to the observatory at San Pedro
Martir. I stayed on a hotel near the rocky beach of Ensenada where they gave me a
tasty margarita.  They also had a nicely lit beach, so I took some long
exposures (5 minutes) of the waves moving in and out.  See some of <a
href=http://www.pbase.com/hattenbach/icelandic_landscapes>Ben Hattenbach's
photos from Iceland</a> for substantially cooler pictures. No fog -- just waves. Here's someone fishing in the morning.  The headquarters for the OAN =
Observatorio Astronomico Nacional is right across the street. This bird claimed she wanted to eat my breakfast.  I offered her a slice of orange and a
mint leaf, neither of which he was interested in. One of the drivers to the observatory.  Unfortunately due to a planning error I
met up with him in the morning, but then had to go back to my hotel to sleep
for a few more hours and took the <i>next</i> truck up.  It's a 4-hr drive from
Ensenada to San Pedro Martir, where the telescope is located. Schedule of all of their truck & drivers. We drove about two hours and then came to some hitchhikers along the road.
This being Mexico and all, my driver Juan stopped for them, told them to get in
back, and we drove on.  15 minutes later we dropped them off.  Note the small
building in the background -- it's a restaurant that sells just <i>birria</i>,
a really really tasty chili-based meat soup.  It's perfectly good without the
meat I think.  It's also the last building for the next 80 km.  The road
between here and the observatory used to be dirt, but was paved in the last 5

California Condors!

We're at the observatory.  I talked with Juan most of the way up, until we
swapped drivers, and then I talked with Raymundo the rest of the way, so I got
to say all the same things in my broken Spanish all over again, which was
easier for me.
<p>But OK, the point here is that there are a whole bunch of real-life
California Condors circling overhead!  Check that out!  It's totally amazing! Here's one condor, which just landed on a pickup truck.  The pickup driver
Raymundo told me that the birds often attack the windshield wipers of the cars.
He still likes them though. Three more The deal is that the San Diego Zoo has a breeding / re-introduction program for
these birds.  The zoo's property is very close to the observatory (esp. as
flies the bird), so they hang out at the telescopes all the time.  There are
about 20-some adult birds, and a bunch of young ones too. And yes, to those doubting, these are <i>California</i> Condors.  This is Baja
<i>California</i>.  There is no such thing as a Mexican Condor.  These are
border hoppers.

San Pedro Martir Observatory, and Observing

Inside the observing dorm.  There's a staff of 30 or so maintaining the
observatory, and the cooks do an excellent job of feeding everyone. In front of the <i>Cabana Roja</i>, one of the original cabins. Old dorm buildings. Dinner orders!  Felipe is our observing assistant. Eduardo de la Fuente, who goes by the name of Smiley, for obvious reasons. Check out those bugs!  The telescopes are 1-2 km from the dorm, so we get to
drive around in some classic Mexican styling!  This is the 2.1 m dome, on the
highest point of the mountain. Sunset. Inside the 2.1 m dome. Eduardo on the 2.1 m catwalk.  There are a ton of mountains around here, including
(I think) Baja's highest point, just a few km away to the left, <a
href=http://www.blueroadrunner.com/picacho.htm>El Picacho del Diablo</a>. Me on the 2.1 m catwalk. We go to visit Marco, who is on the 0.84m telescope taking polarimetry of the
same AGN sources we're looking at. The 0.84m dome. Opening up the 0.84m dome. Liquid nitrogen coming out of the CCD on the 0.84m. The 1.5 m, where we were observing.  The dome is lower, so trees block a bit of
the view. A 5-minute exposure of the 1.5m from outside.  The night is very dark -- no moon
illuminating the dome here! 2 minutes.  I did a cool <a href=http://www.eaubergine.com/images/Movies>timelapse</a> of the night taken from here too. Eduardo in the control room. Felipe, who is the observing assistant.  He is a very sweet guy, who observes
here for 10 nights in a row, and then takes a long holiday in Ensenada.  We all
drove down together and had lunch with his family afterwards, including his
8-year old son who is the Mexican gymnastics national champion.  Next time I'll
take my climbing gear and go up some of the rocks around the observatory with
him. Filling up the liquid nitrogen. Inside the 1.5 m. Getting ready for the descent...

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Henry Throop

Last modified Wed Oct 22 10:22:15 2008