Pointing telescopes is their business, finding stars their mission
Twilight has barely stretched an indigo veil over the southern Arizona sky when astronomer Kenneth Hinkle swivels his chair to face a bearded figure at the control panel of the closest machine humanity has to a star ship.Skip to next paragraph
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"Let's try Alpha Tauri," he says.
"Alpha Tauri it is," comes the reply.
With the tap of a keyboard and click of a mouse, Hal Halbedel triggers a delicate ballet between a massive telescope and its protective 100-ton dome.
As the dome's opening and the telescope's mirror align, the shimmering star - the bull's eye in the constellation Taurus - appears on a TV monitor, and Mr. Halbedel begins to tweak the telescope's focus.
"Ooh, you're good," Dr. Hinkle says with a grin.
"Hey, I do this for a living," Halbedel replies, smiling.
Indeed, if you have a star, nebula, or galaxy you need to visit, Halbedel is one of a small group of people worldwide who will get you there. Known by various titles, most of them polite, these modern-day Han Solos are linchpins of astronomy. Many headline-grabbing discoveries would never be made without mountaintop star pilots, who must act as technicians, weather forecasters, and (unlike Han Solo) diplomats, as well as operate telescopes.
"You can't overstate what these people do. They are absolutely critical," says Ben Oppenheimer, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. "They don't get much credit, but they can make or break a research project."
For theorists who spend their time trying to explain how the cosmos works, a computer, white board, markers, and a stack of results from others' observing runs are their stock in trade. For observational astronomers, however, the currency is telescope time.
Competition for time "on the sky" is fierce. For example, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, which runs telescopes in Chile and Hawaii as well as at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, gets requests for an average of three to four times more nights on its glass than are available.
Even when reviewers approve a project, an astronomer is likely to get only two or three nights on the largest telescopes. That's it for at least six months - often for the year. To an astronomer with tenure at a major university and who may have several projects under way at once, telescope time truncated or lost to weather, technical problems, or a poor operator is annoying. For a graduate student struggling to earn a PhD, a postdoc hoping for a full-time job at a college or university, or an assistant professor looking for tenure, delays or marginally productive observing runs could mean the difference between studying the cosmos or selling insurance.
The star pilots are there to help ensure the visiting researchers remain astronomers by helping them gather as much information as possible during their observing period. At Kitt Peak, a mountaintop Mecca for astronomy some 55 miles west of Tucson, Halbedel is the eminence grise among seven telescope operators. They work six or seven nights in a row, then get several consecutive days off. They can face observing schedules that list dozens of targets a night, or they can keep the telescope locked on a faint object for hours while the instruments tease as many photons as possible from the night sky.
Star pilots come with mechanical or technical skills, a deep appreciation for the night sky, and a sufficiently even temperament to remain calm in the face of broken pumps or grumpy astronomers who apply less-than-polite monikers to observing assistants who close the dome because rain, snow, or excessively high winds threaten the telescope.
"All you can do is tell them that you understand their situation," Halbedel says. The alternative to shutting down for one night is risking damage that may take weeks to repair, he adds, ruining the opportunities for several astronomers. The time may belong to the astronomer, but the operator rules the telescope.
Tonight, Halbedel and Hinkle - who oversees the spectrograph at the business end of the 4-meter Mayall telescope - are working with Craig Kulesa, a graduate student at the University of Arizona who is studying conditions in stellar nurseries such as the Flame Nebula, part of a structure known formally as NGC2024.
"Where do you want to go?" Halbedel asks.