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Star pilots

Pointing telescopes is their business, finding stars their mission

(Page 2 of 2)

"Zeta Ori," Mr. Kulesa replies, referring to the easternmost star in Orion's belt, NCG2024 lurks nearby.

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Once the telescope arrives at the target, the guide system kicks in, and the spectrograph begins its work, Halbedel reflects on the changing role observing assistants have undergone over the 29 years he's worked on the mountain.

"There were no computers, so there were always things to adjust. You really had to learn how to massage the machinery," he says. Even today, microphones in the dome keep operators in the control room attuned to every thump, grind, and whir the telescope makes.

The observing assistant's role "is constantly being redefined," adds Robert Thicksen, supervisor of the Mt. Palomar Observatory near Escondido, Calif.

At one time, he says, night assistants, observing assistants, observing associates, or remote observers - as they are variously known - were little more than chauffeurs for big telescopes. At the observatory's famed 200-inch Hale telescope, the NAs would monitor the scope from a control panel inside the often frigid dome. The astronomer "rode the telescope" in a cage at the telescope's prime focus, high above the main mirror.

While the NA controlled the dome and the telescope's most-sweeping motions, fetched the midnight sandwiches, and stood ready to act as mechanic or medic in an emergency, the astronomer took photographs, using glass plates for film. The researcher also would keep the telescope on target by looking at a guide star through an eye piece and using a hand paddle to control fine changes in the telescope's position.

If a night assistant proved exceptionally competent, the astronomer might eventually allow that person to take the images and review the data.

Now, telescopes have grown more sophisticated, with subsystems monitoring or governing everything from mirror temperature and shape to dome temperature. An increasing number of telescopes use adaptive optics - a laser-based system for getting the sharpest possible image by canceling the distorting effects of the Earth's atmosphere. A variation is being installed at a 3.5 meter telescope on the mountain that will constantly, subtly shift the orientation of the telescope's smaller "secondary" mirror to reduce the atmosphere's "twinkle" effect. Halbedel notes that while the Mayall telescope is modest by today's standard, it still takes four computers talking with each other to run it.

And while some astronomers may be repeat customers, as they were in the old days, their visits are too rare to allow them to become proficient at operating the larger telescopes themselves.

If life on the mountaintop can be technically and diplomatically demanding, it also places constraints on an operator's social life - constraints familiar to anyone who has to work the swing shift regularly. You work nights, while your friends work days.

Kitt Peak's remoteness and a work schedule out of sync with much of the rest of humanity's have contributed to a high turnover-rate among observers recently, NOAO officials acknowledge. Yet some observing assistants have found ways to avoid the social penalties.

Bill Gillespie, who has worked as an observing assistant for three months, acknowledges that he came to the mountain with years of experience at isolated jobs. Following high school, he joined the Navy and served aboard the USS Corpus Christi, a nuclear attack submarine. He also worked as an electrician and welder in Alaskan oil fields where shifts were defined as three months on and three off.

"I like the schedule here," he allows. "You get blocks of time off to work on projects like building small telescopes or learning how to set up computer networks. Or you can just go skiing."

The job also can provide some operators with scientific rewards. On Mt. Hopkins, about 50 miles southeast of Kitt Peak, Perry Berlind has been taking observations for astronomers at the Whipple Observatory for nine years. Unlike his counterparts on Kitt Peak, he often works without an astronomer at his side. Instead, he gets a list of targets, gathers the data himself, then e-mails the results to the project's lead investigator. He says he's been credited with discovering five supernovae, stellar explosions whose violent bursts of energy are valued as "standard candles" for more accurately gauging the expansion rate of the universe.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor