Zooniverse at Mauna Kea, Day 6: This is the End

Ed, Chris, Sandor, and Becky in front of the telescope

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

I’m not sure if we’ve been especially unlucky or if this is the norm for observing trips, but we once again the weather is curtailing our telescope time. After a few hours of normal observing, clouds started to blow across the top of Mauna Kea, and now it’s raining outside the dome.

Tonight's Weather

The Dip in the humidity (2nd from the top) represents when we were able to observe.

In the meantime, Becky and I shot a short video tour of the dome a couple days ago you can check out:

Tomorrow, we check out of Hale Pohaku and head down to Hilo for a night. Then I’m off to Chicago and Becky and Sandor are back to Oxford. Even with the bad weather, sleep deprivation, and static electricity, this trip has been a really great experience for me. I now know infinitely more about radio astronomy than I did before! I hope the people doing the real work were able to get all the data they needed.

A Few Notes:

Sad Becky

This sums up the general mood

  • Sandor and Becky took some sick photos around sunset, you should check out all of them.
  • When everything is terrible, you just have to let it go.
  • Thanks again to all the Galaxy Zoo volunteers, whose work made this observing trip possible for us. You are the best.

Zooniverse at Mauna Kea, Day 5: The Wind Strikes Back


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

After few good days of observations the wind has returned to ruin our fun. The CSO telescope is supposed to be closed when the wind is above 35mph. Curiously the telescope itself doesn’t have its own anemometer, so we have to rely on readings from the other telescopes on the mountain to decide if it is safe to open the telescope building.

Feeling this entire situation was quite unsatisfactory, I decided to build my own anemometer using a clipboard with a ruler and Becky’s boot, giving you the answer to Chris’s question from earlier tonight:

Graph of Wind speed vs Deflection Angle

Shout out to Mrs Beck’s AP Physics for me understanding this

Using the above chart we tried to workout the wind speed. We had to do a bit of fudging. We decided the boot was a perfect cylinder (drag coefficient 0.82), and that it weighed about 300g. We also decided not to take into account lower air pressure. Finally when Sandor and I calculated it independently, we got wildly different results, so it was a futile exercise in the end. (Also CSO buy an anemometer)

Sandor doing the hard work!

Sandor doing the hard work!

Since then, we’ve been playing chicken with the wind. Sometimes having to close the dome. Sometimes thinking we can be open, only to have the telescope struggle to stay on target. Sometimes we hear Meg Schwamb‘s wind tracker say “Warning High Winds”.  The conditions made us miss out on a second night of observing Comet Lovejoy, and everyone seemed pretty down for most of the night.

Around 1 or 2am the wind finally let up and we were able to start observing, so the night wasn’t a complete loss. Hopefully the weather tomorrow is better.

A Few Notes:

  • It’s really hard to get enough sleep. Sleeping at altitude is hard anyway, and adding in trying to sleep during the day gives us all points for degree of difficulty. Everyone has lovely bags around their eyes.
  • This is the last day Chris is with us. We’ll be all alone tomorrow night.
  • Sandor is succumbing to the static curse now too.
  • @GeertHub on Twitter wanted to me to post a screen shot of the telescope software: snapshot1
  • All the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is helping us touch the sky.

Zooniverse at Mauna Kea, Day 4: Stand Back!


(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Tonight we took a brief break from observing galaxies to train the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on comet Lovejoy. I was able to help out with the observation in a real life version of:

Wait, forgot to escape a space. Wheeeeee[taptaptap]eeeeee

(turns out they have swinging ropes in the control room, who knew?). Sandor and Becky did the actual observing work. Sandor running the telescope, and Becky doing the data reduction to produce a nice graph Chris tweeted:

In the last post, I talked about how the telescope deals with the background noise from the Earth’s atmosphere by ‘chopping’ or alternating reading from its target and a point slightly off the target, then combining the readings to produce a measurement of the target with atmospheric interference removed. This works well for the distant galaxies we are observing, but not with the comet. Chris realized that the comet was too close and large (in a relative sense) for chopping to work. The telescope would take its noise reading while still pointing at the comet.

Instead, we used another, albeit less effective, technique for handling noise. We tuned the telescope to the frequency we were looking for (Carbon Monoxide) took a measurement, and then tuned it to another frequency to measure the background noise. Subtracting the noise measurement from the measurement of our target frequency gives us a clean(-ish) signal.

After that the really exciting bit happened. I got to operate the telescope as we recalibrated it and got ready to point it at our first galaxy of the night. It was pretty easy, telescope operating. Even someone with a BS in Film, like me, can do it. The procedure for moving on our first source was to first pick a bright known object, aim the telescope at it, and have the telescope calibrate its positioning by taking five measurements around the source to figure out the source’s true location.

Once the positioning was calibrated, I ordered the telescope to ‘slew’ (using that new vocabulary) to the galaxy we’re observing, set the exposure time, and then had it ‘chop’. And then ‘chop’ again. And then ‘chop’ again. And again. And you get the idea. I’ve gotten to use a bunch of different cameras, but this was by far the coolest one I’ve operated.

Ed at the telescope's controls

That full-frame Red One is weaksauce next my 10m dish

A Few Notes:

  • We ran into to computer glitch around 5 in the morning yesterday. Simon, the telescope manager, kindly helped us fix it.
  • “Watts/Hertz or Watts*m^2/Hertz” I overheard Becky saying, triggering deeply repressed memories of doing unit conversion in High School chemistry.
  • Sorry there haven’t been as many pictures recently. Stuff inside the control room doesn’t really seem to change that much from night to night.
  • There was concern about our comet observation from a collaborator. It turns out the telescope was trying to compensate for the comet’s motion as though it were a distant galaxy, so the above graph still needs a few adjustments applied to it.
  • We had some Comet Lovejoy themed music tonight . We didn’t even look at M83.

Zooniverse at Mauna Kea, Day 3: This line is not hidden in the RMS!

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory

It occurred to me I haven’t talked much about the telescope itself. There haven’t been any pictures of it yet either. We’re at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory which is basically a giant (10m) dish inside a sweet looking disco ball on top of a dormant volcano. It observes at wavelengths somewhere in between infrared and microwave.

CSO dish with astronomers in front

The Dish (Astronomers for Scale)

We spend all of our time at the telescope in the control room with everyone hunched over a computer. I’ve learned a couple of the incantations they use to control the telescope. The first command ‘chop’ is what actually makes it record an observation. I wondered why it wasn’t called ‘listen’ or ‘observe’, but it turns out that ‘chop’ pretty accurately describes the motion of the telescope while it records.

The galaxies we’re observing are very distant and faint, and blend in to the background radiation in our atmosphere. To make up for this, the telescope will take a measurement of the source and then another slightly off the source. The controlling computer uses the second measurement to subtract the background noise from its measurement of the source galaxy.

The other command causes the telescope to move. It’s called ‘slew’. When I asked where that name came from, I was given a shrug by the so-called ‘experts’ in the room. So I turned to Google, and found the dictionary definition is to ‘turn or slide violently or uncontrollably in a particular direction’, which sounds like an accurate description of how the telescope’s movement feels from the control room. It’s also originally a nautical term which also feels appropriate.

The Astronomers

Observing is serious business. Watching people observe is not!

A few notes from the second half of last evening and this:

  • We had a small earthquake! It was exciting. It was shocking. It was only a 3.3! This is the second earthquake Chris, Sandor, and I have experienced and was Becky’s first. Pretty cool.
  • Apparently the observations tonight have provided some confusing results. I tried to get Chris to explain what was odd about them. Mostly due to altitude (partly due to working on this), all I could grasp was that they wanted to compare their observations to a nice looking graph with a clear regression line, and the galaxies they are observing are way off in a corner instead of along the line.*
  • Becky has a major problem with static electricity.
  • Here are some of the songs we’ve been listening to tonight (presented without judgment).
  • You can find more pictures of all the other telescopes at the top of Mauna Kea (post about all of them upcoming!) and other photos of the trip here.

* They misinterpreted the data and everything fits now!

Zooniverse at Mauna Kea Day 2: Take that Meteorologists!


(In which dismayed by forecasts of 100mph winds we go to beach and then end up observing anyway)

A brief update on last night, we were actually able to open the telescope in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Sandor and Becky got as far as pointing the telescope and starting to calibrate it when the wind picked back up and forced us to close.

On the bright-side we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise from the top the mountain.

We awoke late in the afternoon, to emails warning us that “Summit Conditions are Extremely Dangerous” and weather predictions of 100mph winds on the top of the mountain. Thinking it would be a lost night, Becky, Sandor, and I took off for Kona, hoping to checkout the ocean and maybe catch the sunset. Chris stayed behind to answer emails.

Sunset at Kona

Sooo pretty (Photo by Becky)

It was awesome. Definitely a good decision.

Back at Mauna Kea, the predicted extreme winds never materialized, and Chris and Meg Schwamb were able to open the CSO’s doors for a bit of remote observing, while the beach bums rushed back to Hale Pohaku to join. After a brief wind scare, we made the trip up the mountain to observe on site.

The team at their stations.

Hard at work! (Photo by Ed)

It turns that radio astronomy is pretty similar to computer programming (my normal Zooniverse occupation), in that it mostly seems to involve typing obscure commands into a shell prompt and then waiting for things to happen. Unlike programming, it also involves stomach churning shifts, as the entire building moves to track the source.

During the waiting periods, I’ve tried to learn more about how the telescope works after being mesmerized by Simon’s, the telescope’s manager, technospeak. One part of the telescope he seemed most eager to show us was the heterodyne receiver. After asking the real astronomers what is was, I was very disappointed to learn that it wasn’t a Terminator weapon. Instead, it’s part of the telescope’s processing pipeline that transforms the signal from the telescope to a frequency where detectors are cheap(er). Anyway it’s certainly a cool looking piece of equipment.

The Heterodyne Receiver

It came form the Future to save the Present (Photo by Sandor)

That’s about it for me tonight. We’ll just be up here listening to some sick jams and looking at distant galaxies. Remember you can find a bunch of pictures of trip (not many of people observing yet though) here.

Zooniverse Goes to Mauna Kea, Day 1: High Winds


(…more like Day 1.5. We arrived late last night in Hilo, HI after about 24 hours of traveling for the Oxford contingent and mere 14 hours of travel for myself).

Chris, Becky, Sandor, and I are at Mauna Kea to use the CSO telescope to look for blue elliptical galaxies. Or at least they are. I’m just here with my American driver’s license to be the chauffeur. As the non-astronomer in the group, I think it’d be fun to give an outsider’s perspective into what an observing trip is like.

Hale Pohaku

We’re staying at Hale Pohaku, just downhill from the observatories. It’s name means ‘Stone House’, referring to the original structure built by the CCC during the 1930s. It lets visiting observers acclimatize to the high altitude of Mauna Kea. (As Zooniverse readers may know, altitude sickness is not fun.)

The team

Plotting their course of action

While the weather at Hale Pohaku has been beautiful, it is also amazingly windy. So amazingly windy that we weren’t able to start observing tonight when the sun set. Instead we’re reduced to sitting in the common room refreshing a page of anemometer readings hoping that it will drop down below the maximum 35 mph wind speed we can operate the telescope at.

Car on top of Mauna Kea

struggling to open the car door in the wind

We did get to drive up to the summit of Mauna Kea to visit CSO with its manager Simon Redford. Driving the road up the mountain was quite the trip. It’s 5 miles of winding back and forth dirt road that ascends from 9,000ft (2,740m) to 13,000ft (3,960m), but it did give us a spectacular view.


The JCMT which is right next to the CSO

You can find more photos of the trip on our album. We’ll be adding to it throughout out stay. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have some actual observing news to share.

ATLAS data and Radio Galaxy Zoo: more details

(This post was co-written with Minnie Mao, an RGZ science team member and postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico.)

Thanks again for starting your work on the new images from the ATLAS survey! We wanted to talk more about how/why these images differ from the existing FIRST images, including details on the telescopes, survey data, and our science goals.

1. What kind of telescopes are used to take the new images?

The radio data in the new images is from the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), which is located in rural Australia outside the town of Narrabri. The ATCA has 6 separate radio dishes, each 22 meters in diameter. The Very Large Array (VLA), which took the FIRST images, has 27 dishes which are each 25 meters apiece; this means that ATCA has about 1/5th the collecting area of the VLA, and is less sensitive overall. The ATCA can still detect very faint radio objects, but they typically have to take longer exposures (integrate) than the VLA does.

Image of the ATCA outside of Narrabri, NSW, Australia. Image courtesy CSIRO/Ettore Carretti.

The six radio dishes of the ATCA, located outside of Narrabri, NSW, Australia. Image courtesy CSIRO/Ettore Carretti.

The size of the arrays for the two telescopes is also different. The ATCA has a maximum baseline of 6km, which means that at 20cm (the wavelength used in RGZ images) you have a resolution of ~9 arcsec. This sets the smallest size of structures seen in the radio contours. The VLA has a longer maximum baseline of 36km, which means at 20cm you have a resolution of ~1.2arcsec. The configuration used for the FIRST images in RGZ has a resolution of about 5 arcsec, which is about twice as small as that in the new ATLAS data.

Finally, one of the biggest differences between the two telescopes comes from the arrangement of the dishes, not just their maximum size. The VLA is in a Y-shape which means imaging can be done in relatively short exposures, called ‘snapshots’. The ATCA is in a linear configuration running from east to west. Imaging with the ATCA requires observations over a large range of times so that observations are taken at a variety of earth rotation positions (filling the uv-plane). A full synthesis image with the ATCA requires 12 hours of observing.

The infrared data comes from the SWIRE survey carried out with the Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer is an infrared observatory launched by NASA in 2003 and is still operating today. One big difference between Spitzer and WISE is their relative sensitivities and field of view; Spitzer has a bigger mirror than WISE, but a much smaller field of view. Spitzer was designed mostly to study individual objects in detail and at very high sensitivity. WISE, on the other hand, was a survey telescope designed to sweep across the entire sky several times and detect all the infrared objects it could. So instead of mapping the whole sky, Spitzer carried out smaller observations of specific fields.

Spitzer had cameras that could image at a wide range of infrared wavelengths; the new images use Spitzer’s lowest-wavelength filter (3.6 microns) on the IRAC camera. This is almost exactly the same wavelength used for the WISE images (3.4 microns), so these are directly comparable. These near-infrared wavelengths are sensitive to emission from older/cooler stars, warm dust, and light from accretion disks that may surround black holes within galaxies.

2. Where in the sky were these new images taken?

The new images come from two fields in the Southern Hemisphere, called the Chandra Deep Field South (CDF-S) and the European Large Area ISO Survey South-1 (ELAIS-S1). If you know your constellations, these lie near Fornax and Phoenix, respectively.

These fields were chosen specifically so there weren’t bright radio sources in/near the fields. Moreover, these fields have tonnes of ancillary data! The CDF-S is one of the most intensely observed fields in the sky, with deep data from world-class telescopes from radio to gamma-ray! The CDFS (proper) is actually a MUCH smaller region than the ATLAS project observed… but the generally larger field-of-view from the radio telescope enabled a decent chunk of sky to be observed. This is critical to avoid problems such as cosmic variance.

A panoramic view of the near-infrared sky reveals the distribution of galaxies beyond the Milky Way. SWIRE covers six small fields; the two in the south (Chandra-S and ELAIS-S1) are the ones now included in Radio Galaxy Zoo.

A panoramic view of the near-infrared sky shows the distribution of galaxies beyond the Milky Way. SWIRE covers six small fields; two at the bottom right (Chandra-S and ELAIS-S1) are the ones now included in Radio Galaxy Zoo. Image courtesy NASA/T. Jarrett.

Deep fields like CDF-S and ELAIS-S1 enable statistical properties of galaxies to be determined over cosmic time, and of course understanding how galaxies have formed and evolved is probably the most important extragalactic astronomy question :) These sorts of wide + deep observations also are great for discovering the ‘unknown’… :)

3. Why do these images look different than the ones already in RGZ?
This one is fun!! Mostly due to the VLA’s Y-shaped configuration, image artefacts tend to be hexagonally shaped (like a six-sided snowflake). Conversely, ATCA artefacts tend to look like radial spokes.

The ATLAS images also have ~10 arcsec resolution whereas the FIRST images have 5 arcsec resolution so the FIRST images might appear more ‘detailed’.

Both the ATLAS and SWIRE data are much more sensitive than the FIRST/WISE data because the telescopes integrated on this small part of the sky for much longer.

4. Why does the RGZ science team want to cover these fields?<

One reason is that ATLAS is what's called a "pathfinder" mission for an upcoming survey called EMU. EMU will use another telescope in Australia, named ASKAP, to do a deep survey over the entire sky. This is the best of both worlds, combining the sensitivity of ATLAS with the sky coverage of FIRST, and will provide ~70 million radio sources! A pathfinder mission like ATLAS is a smaller version which tests things like hardware, data reduction, and feasibility of larger surveys. We plan on asking citizen scientists to help with the EMU data as well, and so starting on the ATLAS images is a critical first step.

Since the area covered in these images is also much, much smaller than the FIRST survey, it was possible for small groups of astronomers to visually go through and cross-match the radio and IR emissions. Those results were published several years ago (led by RGZ science team member Ray Norris). Getting your results for the same set will help us to calibrate the new data from FIRST, which has many more galaxies and for which we don’t have the same information yet. We also want to see what new objects are left to be discovered in ATLAS (giant radio galaxies, HyMORS, WATs, etc.) that astronomers may have missed!

1 million classifications and beyond!


Huzzah! We have now broken through the 1 million mark with Radio Galaxy Zoo as of January 16, 2015. It has taken all of you ~13 months to do 40 years worth of cross-identifications. Well done and a huge thank you to every single one of you out there who helped us along.

A big shout-out to the winners of our 1 millionth classification milestone competition. The winners are: @planetari7, @ChrisMolloy, @leonie van vliet, @antikodon, @BOSSARD louis michel and @JF45456.   I will be e-mailing each of you soon.

My biggest thank you to every single Radio Galaxy Zooite who helped us get this far. We really could not have done this without you.


Ivy, Julie & the entire RGZ team

New ATLAS images for Radio Galaxy Zoo

Dear Radio Galaxy Zoo volunteers,

Thanks again for all your help so far in classifying radio galaxies through RGZ. We’re rapidly approaching our 1 millionth classification, probably by the end of this week (Jan 15-17) at the current rate. Don’t forget that we’ll be awarding prizes!

In the meantime, we’re excited to announce that we’ve just finished processing a new set of images for RGZ. There are 2,461 new images in total: the radio images are from a survey named ATLAS, carried out by the ATCA telescope in Australia. The corresponding infrared images come from the Spitzer Space Telescope as part of a survey named SWIRE.

Due to the differences in telescopes (ATCA has fewer dishes and a different arrangement of them than the VLA, while Spitzer has a much bigger mirror than WISE) and the depths of the two surveys, the data will look a little bit different. If you’ve done lots of classifications on Radio Galaxy Zoo already, you may notice more elongated radio beams in the ATLAS data, as well as a slightly larger size of the smaller unresolved noise spots. ATLAS can also detect fainter objects than the FIRST survey.

The new SWIRE infrared images have about twice the angular resolution of WISE (it can separate objects down to 3 arcseconds apart) and are more than 20 times as sensitive. That means you’ll likely see more infrared objects in the new images, and might have more choices for likely host galaxies for radio emission.

An example of one of the new ATLAS/SWIRE images  for Radio Galaxy Zoo, as seen in Talk. From left to right: radio contours, infrared overlaid with radio, infrared only.

An example of one of the new ATLAS/SWIRE images for Radio Galaxy Zoo, as seen in Talk. From left to right: radio contours, infrared overlaid with radio, infrared only.

Since the images are mostly similar, the task for RGZ hasn’t changed (in fact, the original tutorial image was from ATLAS data). We’re still asking you to pick out individual radio components (or groups of components) and match them to their IR host galaxies. The new images will be randomly mixed in with the older images; you should see an ATLAS image every 6th or 7th classification, on average. If you’re curious whether a galaxy you’ve just classified is in ATLAS, the easiest way is to look at it in Talk: the new galaxy names will begin with a “C” (eg, “CI3180″) and will have declinations that are negative (eg, -27.782) showing that they’re in the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll post a longer blog post very shortly with more information on ATLAS, SWIRE, and what we’re hoping to learn from these new images. In the meantime, please post here or on Talk if you have any questions!

And keep up the classifications in the next few days — hopefully you can be our 1 millionth image!

Seasons Greetings 2014!

Seasons Greetings for the end of 2014, and many thanks for all the classifications you provided for us at Galaxy Zoo this year!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 22,002 other followers