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Observing at SAAO, 2014 - 2014

I spent two weeks observing at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) site in Sutherland, about four hours northeast of Cape Town. My first trip, in August 2013, was following Amanda Gulbis to observe a Pluto occultation. But we were hit with snow, and didn't open the dome at all in the four nights I was there. Later, I spent a week on my own program in May 2014, looking at Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) -- that is, close comets and asteroids -- assisted by Co-I Vishnu Reddy in Tucson.


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Night-time clouds over Table Mountain! I'm in Cape Town, staying at Jacaranda House, the lodge at the observatory. The Cape Town observatory has a bunch of domes but most do not have telescopes in them. The big telescopes were moved to Sutherland (4 hours away) when light pollution became a problem in Cape Town in the 1970s.
We've driven up to Sutherland, about four hours from Cape Town. Here we're looking down on the hostel at SAAO, from the telescopes on the plateau slightly above. The hostel has a dining room, library, dorms, and so forth. The town of Sutherland is 10 km or so down, to the left.
SALT = Southern African Large Telescope, at Sutherland. Careful of those kudu! (Actually, the site is populated by a lot of springbok, but those don't have the twisty horns shown in the picture. At home in Pretoria, the signs also show a kudu, when they really mean any wild animal.)
That's SALT.
Amanda inside SALT! That's the 11-meter mirror below. It's made of 91 smaller 1-meter hexagonal mirrors. All of them are spherical, rather than parabaloid, which means that they can be taken out and put back in a different position because they're all identical. The mirror segments that look dark really are -- they are the ones that are most in need of re-aluminizing. You can see at least two of the mirrors are missing, due to aluminizing or other maintenance. From an optical standpoint, a missing mirror does not make a big difference.
Amanda Gulbis and ___ in the SALT control room. SALT has at least two people staffing it at night: an astronomer, and an operator. Amanda was one of six SALT astronomers for several years -- meaning that during her shift, she was responsible for making observations out of the queue.

SALT is very different from most classic telescopes: the astronomer awarded time rarely if ever actually goes to the telescope, and in most cases doesn't even know when their observations will execute. All the observing is done out of the queue, with the SALT astronomer choosing what to observe based on the target visibility, weather, science priority, and so forth.

We're taking a tour of the LCOGT (Las Cumbres Global Observatory Telescope) 1-meter telescope. This is really cool. It's a brand-new network of telescopes, placed all across the globe. The idea is to focus not on spatial or spectral resolution, but on time. Having a network of telescopes lets a particular object be studied 24-7, with less concern for weather, set times, etc. Also, since their machine shop designs and manufactures every telescope identically, they can really optimize. Look at that perfect perfect cabling job -- so unlike the mess of wires coming out of most telescopes.

Note the Google-like colors on the LCOGT logo. Wayne Rosing, who started and runs LCOGT, was head of the Apple LISA project, developed the SPARC chip, and then was a VP at Google, before quitting with a ton of $$ and using it to set up a private telescope network.

On the left is Rick Hessman at the 1.2m MONET telescope. Check out that indestructible German engineering! I understand it was built by a German company that mostly builds industrial printing presses -- heavier is better! -- and they've adopted this same philosophy in their telescopes.

On the right is the similarly sized Las Cumbres telescope. It is lithe in comparison -- check out those narrow struts! And the amazing baffling between the secondary and primary. I don't know quite how or why they work, but I suspect their engineers have very carefully optimized weight vs. stray light vs. airflow and come up with this crazy design.

That's a $9,000 Nikon 400mm f/2.8 they're using as a viewfinder. But hey, it's a million-dollar telescope.

He's one of the electricians from Santa Barbara working on installing the 3 LGOCT domes at Sutherland. South Africa is not involved in running the telescopes, but gets a fraction of the time by hosting them at Sutherland.
Walking back down to the hostel.
Fred, Encarni, and Chantal, at the hostel.
Fred is an operator on SALT and an observer at the small telescopes. His kids grew up at the observatory.
Inside the hostel is one indicator. Only one number counts, which is the speed above which you cannot open the telescope domes. The winds were above it nearly the whole time I was there. Looks like around 98 kph now!
Rick is at SAAO for a week, doing work on the German 1.2m MONET telescope. MONET is robotic, so it usually runs by itself, but gets serviced occasionally.
Encarni Romero Colmenero's purple & blue unicorn clearly beats the designs in any of Apple's recent sticker commercial. Encarni is one of the six SALT astronomers -- in fact, the first one.

Oh, what are we doing here? It's night time but everyone's at the hostel? Must be those clouds, or the wind, or...

Still snowing... we spent the evening in town eating lamb shank ("We buy 15 lambs a day from across the street") and talking with Sutherland locals.
Pluto occultation in a few hours... right now, we're in the middle of an African blizzard.
Amanda shows her Colorado-developed snowball targeting skills in front of the 1.0 meter telescope. The 1.9 meter, at left, used to be located in Pretoria, about 3 km from my house. Amanda and I were trying to use it for a Pluto occultation.
Amanda and I check out the skies. This dome may not be very protective, but it does have a great view.
Rick finds the singing rocks!! Hit them just right and they resonate. Below are various observatory buildings; the hostel is further off to the right.
Rick and Amanda are shadowed.
I'm driving up to observe at the 1m. That's the LCOGT trio on the left, and the Japanese IRSF at right, with the 0.75 m (I think) in the mirror.
SALT in the clouds...
I took this photo on my first visit, and as of my second trip the tree was gone. "The most-photographed tree in all of South Africa has fallen down!" Sutherland doesn't have many trees. This one had been nourished for many years by a leaky drain pipe. The pipe was rerouted, which seems to have done it in.
One of my favorite photos. That's Milena's headlights as she's giving up for the nights at the IRSF (right of center). There are a bunch of smaller telescopes, including KELT (= Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope), Solaris, and the LCOGT trio.
I saw a lot of this weather. I had to close down because of winds, which had hit 80 kph at the dome... this photo was taken as I was sheltering myself inside the 1-meter's doorway.
My headlamp...
This is the 1-meter dome that I was observing at... but I was closed down due to winds on my final night. I had to put my tripod on its super-low, super-wide setting so that it wouldn't get blown over in the winds. I illuminated the dome with my iPhone, which you can see a bit of a trail from. This telescope dome is a lot bigger than it looks here.
I was pretty clouded out for my run in May-June 2014. But I had one night that was amazing... clear the dry the whole night, and I had nearly 14 hours of time with the dome open. When I finally stepped outside at 7 AM, this is what I saw.
That contrail (visible to the side in the previous photo as well).
Selfie at the 1-meter. I had a week of time to monitor comets and asteroids. Note the closed dome slit... prime observing time, but humidity kept the dome closed.
Milena was giving several weeks of observing on IRSF by her Japanese collaborators. This telescope features green tea and a rice maker. Milena is from Poland and definitely speaks no Japanese.
Asparagus biscuits and green-tea flavored Kit Kats!
The most important thing to know at the Japanese-run IRSF: how to call Japan!
Amanda and I walked down to the community center that SALT / SAAO has sponsored in Sutherland. There are a lot of computers here and a library. And when we went in (I think they were not normally open), chess team was in action!
Sutherland has a number of astronomy-themed guest houses. Astro-tourism is a big deal here.
Descending on the road to Cape Town. I like that the big trees get their own highway sign.
Too beautiful not to take photos wile driving.
Passing the vineyards...
I stopped for lunch at this padstal (Afrikaans for farm stand).
If you drink South African wine... thank these guys! Just past the padstal where I stopped for lunch, they waved me over from the highway. The two guys work in the vineyards; the one in front built the shed where they live. The local vineyard is De Wet Cellar, which is largely a wholesale supplier. That's snow in the peaks behind...
A few kids around the corner...
Not quite out of the mountains yet!
Now back in Cape Town. I took the historic cable car (1929) up Table Mountain. The bay view from the top is allegedly famous, but it was pretty cloudy today.
In retrospect, I would have been disappointed to have clear weather. The clouds were amazing, as I watched them whipping through the rocks up top. There are a number of beautiful trails up on top through the rocky tundra. It was very windy with low visibility, which tended to hide the warning signs of 200-meter cliff drops. It reminded me a lot of Colorado.
Only the strongest flowers survive! I'm not much for flower photos but this is one of my favorites. 1/8 second exposure.

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Henry Throop

Last modified Tue Jul 29 23:03:20 2014