Tag Archives: Siding Spring Observatory

My contribution to 2018 #StargazingABC

How can I say it in just few words? It was both very exciting and exhausting, with a little bit of bitter too. But, overall, last week at Siding Spring Observatory was one of the best experiences I have had in a long time working at the telescope, combining science research, amateur astronomy, outreach and science communication during the Stargazing ABC Live shows.

The AAT is ready for #StargazingABC. Hosts Julia Zemiro and Prof Brian Cox are sit in the piano, while Brian still rehearsing. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

When I’m writing this, at 6:44pm 30th May 2018, I’m still observing at the Anglo-Australian Telescope. I’m doing it remotely from Sydney. It is my last night in a very long run (18 nights in May) for my own research project, which I will detail here eventually. I’m exhausted and need a good break, body and mind can’t survive this crazy rhythm, sleeping an average of 4-5 hours per day, and without any break during the weekends.

But let me at least quickly mention here my contribution to the 2018 Stargazing Live shows:

1. I provided A LOT OF information about Astronomy and the Anglo-Australian Telescope to the ABC and BBC crews. This is something that I’ve been doing during the last months, and might be considered as part of my role of “AAO Science Communicator Officer”.

2. I provided plenty of astrophotography and video-timelapse material, which was used during the shows. The most important of these is the new timelapse video “Stargazing at Siding Spring Observatory“, that you can enjoy here:

3. I spent some of my scheduled time at the Anglo-Australian Telescope to prepare a nice, new image of a beautiful astronomy object, that was later discussed during the show. It was the planetary nebula NGC 5189, for which I provided extra information in the previous post.

4. But the most important contribution for the show was actually observing with the AAT two transients reported by the citizen scientists who participated in a program to search for type Ia supernova in other galaxies. After confirming that the transient was there, we got spectroscopic information using KOALA+AAOmega, reduced the data, analysed the data, confirmed that both transients were type Ia supernova in distant galaxies, and wrote a science report with the discovery!

This was something I originally didn’t plan to do, but, as I said, it was my own research program that scheduled at the AAT during the StargazingABC, so I decided to do it and it got a reward, as this also allowed us to submit two science reports with the discoveries!

These two nights were really exciting! I really want to thank my friends and colleagues Lluís Galbany and Yago Ascasibar, as well as the AAT Night Assistant Kristin Fiegert (AAO), for their wonderful help in all of this.

The discovery of the transients and the confirmation that they were type Ia supernova in distant galaxies has appeared in many media news these days, including in ABC Science News, and also here: “Citizen scientists find two supernovae and (slightly) revise the age of the cosmos“.

It was also a privilege talking with Prof Brian Cox, who is absolutely great, and even recorded a short video with me for my son. Thank you a lot, Brian!

Prof Brian Cox and me are ready for #StargazingABC.

Where is the “bitter” I mentioned in the first paragraph? Well it is when the credit is not given. And not credit was given to me during the shows. I was still hoping at least having my name in the screen, in an ideal world even participating in person during the shows. But with my name (Ángel) and my strong English accent… well… perhaps in another life… I know what I did and I know how important my contribution was, and as I said I really enjoyed a lot all the time.

I hope I’ll be back if #StargazingABC returns in 2019!

PS: If you are in Australia, you can watch anytime the 3 episodes of 2018 #StargazingABC following this link to the ABC webpages.


Successful BBC and ABC Stargazing Live TV events at Siding Spring Observatory

Article originally written by Ángel R. López-Sánchez for the “AAO Observer” 132, August 2017. Credits of all the photos: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

Colorful lights in dome of our Anglo-Australian Telescope in preparation for the Stargazing Live TV shows.

During two weeks in late March and early April 2017, famous physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox co-hosted two “Stargazing TV” shows emitted live from Siding Spring Observatory in the BBC and in the ABC. The stage of these major TV events was our Anglo-Australian Telescope, (AAT) at Siding Spring Observatory, on the edge of the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran, NSW.

BBC Stargazing Live shows at Siding Spring Observatory were emitted on the early morning of Wednesday 29th, Thursday 30th and Friday 31st March 2017 (evenings of the previous days in the UK). BBC Stargazing Live TV shows were hosted by Professor Brian Cox and TV presenter and comedian Dara Ó Briain, with the participation of biologist and BBC presenter Liz Bonnin and Broome-based amateur astronomer Greg Quicke (who was very popular in social media, receiving the nickname of #SpaceGandalf).

During BBC Stargazing Live astrophysicist and science communicator Lisa Harvey-Smith (CSIRO) was also interviewed. Astronomer and journalist Chris Lintott (Oxford University) was in charge of reporting the news of the citizen science project “The Search for Planet 9“, led by astronomers at the Australian National University and launched in the first episode of BBC Stargazing Live. This citizen science project uses images taken with the Skymapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory to search for a new planet in our Solar System.

#StargazingABC live episodes were emitted the following week (Tuesday 4th, Wednesday 5th and Thursday 6th April 2017). Hosts Professor Brian Cox and TV presenter Julia Zemiro were joined by astronomers to inspire Australia to explore our Universe and tackle astronomy’s most intriguing questions. Astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith (CSIRO) also participated as TV presenter for the #StargazingABC shows.

AAO’s Fred Watson, Steve Lee and David Malin were interviewed several times during the ABC and BBC Stargazing Live shows.

SAMI observers at the Anglo-Australian Telescope shared the dome with ABC crew while preparing instrument and telescope for observations on the afternoon of Sunday 2nd April.

For #StargazingABC first episode, the Milky Way, AAO astronomers Ángel López-Sánchez and Steve Lee prepared a new astronomical color image using data taken with the CACTI auxiliary camera of the AAT, which was broadcasted in the episode. This image shows Diffuse gas and dust in the heart of the Carina Nebula. The bright star is Eta Carinae, a massive double star at the end of its live that will soon explode as a supernova. The “Keyhole” is the dark cloud in the centre of the image.

Both Stargazing Live ABC events were very successful. #StargazingABC live episodes reached 2.7 million viewers across metro and regional Australia. They also had a huge impact in social media. ABC 1st TV episode reached over 240K people and had more than 8K reactions in Facebook, comments and shares, similar numbers to those obtained with ABC TV’s New Year’s Eve Family Fireworks stream. Regarding Twitter, the #StargazingABC hashtag reached 18.4 million users and produced 16.8K tweets from 6.3K unique contributors. 12.8K of these tweets were produced during the broadcasts, making #StargazingABC trend no.1 in Australia.

Credits of all the photos: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

More information: AAO news: ABC Stargazing Live at the AAT.


Crescent Moon and AAT

Crescent Moon and AAT

The Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT, Siding Spring Observatory, NSW, Australia) is ready for another night observing with the SAMI instrument. A crescent Moon is seen towards the west through the opening of the dome.

Photo taken using a CANON EOS 5D Mark III, 0.6 seconds integration, 70mm lens at f2.8, 400 ISO, Thursday 2nd March 2017, 8pm AEST.

More sizes, including highest resolution image, in my Flickr.

Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU).

A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope

One of the most complex astronomical instruments nowadays available is the Two Degree Field (2dF) system at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT, Siding Spring Observatory, NSW, Australia). The main part of 2dF is a robot gantry which allows to position up to 400 optical fibers in any object anywhere within a “two degree field” of the sky.

The 2dF instrument attached to the primary focus of the AAT. Note that the mirror of the telescope is opened. This image was chosen to be part of the Stories from Siding Spring Observatory Photo Exhibition the AAO organized last year.
Credit: Á.R.L-S.

392 optical fibers are fed to the AAOmega spectrograph, which allows to obtain the full optical spectrum of every object targeted by an optical fiber. The remaining 8 optical fibers are actually fibre-bundles and are used to get an accurate tracking of the telescope while astronomers are observing that field, which may last up to 3 hours. 2dF possesses two field plates: one located at the primary focus of the telescope and another at the position of the robot gantry. While a field is being observed in one plate, 2dF configures the next field on the other plate. A tumbling mechanism is used to exchange the plates. 2dF was designed at the AAO in the late 90s and, since then, it has been used by a large number of international astrophysicists. In a clear night, 2dF can obtain high-quality optical spectroscopic data of more than 2,800 objects.

Indeed, this sophisticated instrument has conducted observations for hundreds of astronomical projects, including galaxy surveys such as the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey, the WiggleZ Dark Energy Survey, and the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA), survey which is still on going and in which I actively participate. The optical fibers of 2dF can be also fed the new HERMES spectrograph, which is now starting the ambitious Galactic Archaeology with HERMES (GALAH) survey at the AAT. GALAH aims to observe around 1 million galactic stars to measure elemental abundances and measure stellar kinematics.

Frame of the time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope”. The 2dF robot gantry moving and positioning the optical fibers. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

How does 2dF move and position the optical fibers? A very nice way of explain it is using the time-lapse technique, that is, taking many images and then adding all to get a movie of the robot while moving and positioning the fibers. That is why in 2012 I decided to create the video, A 2dF night at the AAT, which assembles 14 time-lapse sequences taken at the AAT during September and November 2011 while I was working at the AAT as support astronomer of the 2dF instrument. Actually, this time-lapse video shows not only how 2dF works but also how the AAT and the dome move and the beauty of the Southern Sky in spring and summer. The time-lapse lasts for 2.9 minutes and combines more than 4000 frames obtained using a CANON EOS 600D provided with a 10-20mm wide-angle lens.

Time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the AAT”. I recommend to follow the link to YouTube and watch it at HD and full screen in a dark room. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

The video consists in three kinds of sequences created at 24 frames per second (fps). The first 3 sequences show how the 2dF robot gantry moves the optical fibers over a plate located at the primary focus of the telescope. Although in real life 2dF needs around 40-45 minutes to configure a full field with 400 fibers, the time-lapse technique allows to speed this process. The first 2 sequences have been assembled taking 1 exposure per second, therefore 1 second of the video corresponds to 24 seconds in real life. The third sequence considers an exposure each 3 seconds, and hence it shows the robot moving very quickly. The next four sequences show the movement of the telescope and the dome. All of them were obtained taking 2 images per second (a second in the movie corresponds to 12 seconds in real life). The long black tube located at the primary focus of the telescope is 2dF. The remaining sequences, all obtained during the night, were created taking exposures of 30 seconds, and hence each second in the video corresponds to 12 minutes in real life.

Frame of the time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope”. The AAT telescope, with 2dF (the long, black tube) attached at its primary focus, is prepared to start observing. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

Astronomical time-lapse videos allow to see the movement of the Moon, planets and stars in a particular position in the Earth, something that conventional videos cannot achieve. In particular, dim stars and faint sky features, such as the Milky Way with its bright and dark clouds and the Magellanic Clouds, can be now easily recorded. As in my first time-lapse video, The Sky over the AAT, I set the camera up at the beginning of the night, let it run, and check on its progress occasionally. I used at focal of f5.6 and an ISO speed of 1600 ISO for the night sequences.

Frame of the time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope”. The Magellanic Cloud rise while the Milky Way sets over the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory on 3 Nov 2011. Some kangaroos can be seen in the ground. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

However, the procedure that took more time was processing the hundreds of individual photographies included in each sequence. In many cases, I needed more than 12 hours of computer time, including 3 or 4 iterations per sequence, to get a good combination of low noise and details of the sky, plus “cleaning” bad pixels or cosmic rays. In particular, for this video I tried hard to show the colours of the stars, a detail which is usually lost when increasing the contrast to reveal the faintest stars. In the last sequence of the video, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse appear clearly red, while the stars in the Pleiades and Rigel have a blue color.

Frame of the time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope”. A dark night at The Anglo-Australian Telescope (23 Sep 2011). Orion constellation is seen over the AAT dome. The red colour of Alderaban and Betelgeuse and blue colours of Pleiades and Rigel are clearly distinguished. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

As I did for my previous time-lapse, here I also included a sequence which shows the trails created by the stars as they move in the sky as a consequence of the rotation of the Earth. This sequence shows the Celestial Equator and stars at the South (top) and North (bottom) Celestial Hemisphere. Note that star trails have indeed many different colours. Other details that appear in this time-lapse video are clouds moving over the AAT, satellites and airplanes crossing the sky, the nebular emission of the Orion and Carina nebulae, the moonlight entering in the AAT dome, and kangaroos “jumping” in the ground.

Frame of the time-lapse video “A 2dF night at the Anglo-Australian Telescope”. Startrails over the Anglo-Australian Telescope on 23 Sep 2011. The colours of the stars are clearly seen in this image, which stacks 1h 6min of observing time. Credit: Á.R.L-S.

Finally, I chose an energetic soundtrack which moves with both 2dF and the sky. It is the theme Blue Raider of the group Epic Soul Factory, by the composer Cesc Villà. Actually, all sequences were created to fit the changes in the music, something that also gave me some headaches. But I think the result was worth all the effort.