Researcher anecdotes: journey to the heart of large telescopes

The IRTF observatory is located 4,168 meters above sea level at the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Credit: Jonathan Gagné
L’observatoire IRTF est situé à 4168 mètres au sommet du Mauna Kea, à Hawaï.
  • L’observatoire IRTF est situé à 4168 mètres au sommet du Mauna Kea, à Hawaï.
  • Les télescopes Magellan Baade et Clay (à droite) sont situés à l'observatoire de Las Campanas dans la cordillère des Andes, au Chili.
  • Le télescope Magellan Baade possède un miroir primaire d'un diamètre de 6,5 mètres et sa monture occupe presque l'entièreté de l'espace du dôme.
  • L’observatoire CTIO, situé sur le Cerro Tololo, près de la vallée de l'Elqui au Chili.
  • L’astrophysicien Jonathan Gagné lors de son expédition au télescope IRTF, à Hawaï, en 2014.
Researcher anecdotes: journey to the heart of large telescopes

Jonathan Gagné is an astrophysicist at Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan who brings the scientific method to bear on his cup of coffee. It’s true: the man who scours the sky in search of brown dwarfs and associations of young stars studies his morning coffee’s variations in taste just as meticulously. A look at some of his adventures with the world’s great telescopes of the world, coffee in hand.

Earning time

When you conduct research in astrophysics, observation time at large telescopes is the literal equivalent of an invaluable collection of data. But not just anyone has access to these observatories. “It’s a competition where the strategy is to apply to a lot of places,” Jonathan explained to me. “During my doctorate I applied to five or six different telescopes every six months.”

And fortune smiled on him. In the spring of 2013, not only did he get time in Chile and in Hawaii, but the scientist was allocated time on two different telescopes on the same dates. Fortunately the observatories were located in the same country, so he was able to use his observation time at both telescopes.

Destination Chile

Accompanied by his colleague Amélie Simon, Jonathan headed off to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. The duo had 14 consecutive nights in which to install and calibrate a camera developed in Montréal on the Chilean telescope. In the same period, Jonathan had also obtained three nights of observation at the SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope), located on a nearby mountain a four-hour drive away. Reaching their destination after a mostly sleepless night and an eventful trip in the Andes, he went into multitasking mode. He piloted the observation with SOAR to collect data for his doctorate while simultaneously Skype-guiding his colleague still at CTIO. “I had to direct live two projects at the same time! And normally” – he confesses in hindsight – “that’s something you try to avoid.”

And then the fluctuating stability of Chile’s Internet connection showed itself, interfering with the long-distance communication between the two scientists. “I no longer had a picture and she could no longer detect sound,” Jonathan recalls. “But I could hear her getting angry because the instrument wasn’t working.” Once that chaotic moment had come and gone, the harvesting and installation missions concluded successfully, though with somewhat exhausted participants.

Higher still

At the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), situated a little higher than 4,100 meters above sea level, conditions are hazardous. Access to the site of the telescope in Hawaii is sometimes blocked by ice and snow. The altitude gives rise to a number of specific  physiological reactions. To alleviate problems caused by the shortage of oxygen, for example, tanks of it are available at all times onsite. It was a truly memorable experience for the astrophysicist.

The researcher talks about that experience with a laugh, though. “It’s as though you’d drunk two beers. You feel tipsy while doing your observations! It’s really strange, because you see the stars less and less clearly because of the lack of oxygen. It’s as though all your systems were working in low resolution. Some people will take a puff of oxygen to see the stars clearly for just five seconds.”

These extraordinary field experiences are just a small proportion of research in astrophysics. It’s working with a computer and databases that takes up the bulk of astrophysicists’ time. To reap the benefits of a few days a year in the company of the stars, Jonathan might devote the equivalent of nearly a month’s work to applications for telescope observation time. The payoff in all this hard work? “When you walk out of the observatory with the sun coming up,” he confides, “and you look at the landscape, it’s truly epic.”

Science in the kitchen

Thanks to lockdowns, observation by telescope has been done more remotely the last couple of years. But it’s been no less exciting for all that. Jonathan’s collaborating on among other things a project led by American astrophysicist Jackie Faherty designed to harvest data courtesy of the James Webb Space Telescope launched into space just recently.

At the same time, he’s devoting himself to his passion for coffee physics. If you’ve ever asked yourself why your filter coffee doesn’t taste the same every day, I invite you to discover why by exploring the young astrophysicist’s discoveries on the subject in his blog Coffee ad Astra.

Which goes to show that the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t need to take us umpteen kilometers from home!

Going further:

Every year in November, Space for Life presents Researchers’ Night, a unique event that celebrates research and makes it accessible to the general public.

Couldn’t get there?

Catch the rebroadcast of the talk show “In Unknown Territory” (in French) from the 2021 edition, which was held at the Biodôme de Montréal.

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