Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of many large observatories around the world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I was part of a skeleton crew scheduled to be on site making sure there were no problems with site infrastructure during the shutdown. However, management decided to reduce that crew, pulling our team from the rotation for the time being. So my main job at the moment is working on telescope documentation from home.
This is an important job. Four years ago, the control system at the Mayall 4-meter went through a major hardware and software upgrade in preparation for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) that we’re now using. Those of us who operate the telescope learned how to do things on the fly before the telescope was shutdown for the actual DESI upgrade. During that period, the programmers and engineers who did the control system upgrade were, of course, occupied installing DESI and making it work. The upshot is that it’s now time to actually document how the new control system works.
As it turns out, a lot of the basic “how do you make the telescope go” level of documentation is already complete. That’s stuff I was able to do before and during the DESI upgrade. The stuff I’m working on now is more “under the hood” level documentation. For example, the image above shows two sets of coordinates: Target and Sky. Both are the same in the picture. The kind of information I need from a programmer is what does he mean when he refers to the “Target” coordinates and what does he mean when he refers to the “Sky” coordinates. It turns out, the two should only be different if you know the telescope is slewing from one target to another, or the servos are turned off and the telescope is not tracking the sky.
The other day, I shared a news article about the closure of observatories on social media. I received a lot of surprise from people. Observatories are, after all, remote places and you’d think they’re about as “socially distant” a place to be as possible. In fact, on my last night of observing, I shared a control room with an observer from the UK and one from Mexico and we even joked about that a little. Look back at the previous sentence, though, and you actually see part of the problem. Large observatories attract observers and tourists from all around the world. We may not have a lot of people on site, but they are people who have traveled far to get there, possibly exposing themselves to the virus on the way.
Even if we closed down to just remote operations where only local people were allowed at the observatory, we’d still have a problem. If something breaks, you often need a team of engineers and technicians to get it operating again. You could imagine allowing the observatory to run until something breaks, and then just leaving it at that point until someone could fix it. The problem with this scenario becomes clear if you imagine a situation where the broken mechanism is the dome shutter and rain is approaching, which could, in turn, damage the telescope and instrumentation.
Fortunately, even though many large telescopes are shut down, many smaller facilities are still operating and monitoring the skies for “transient” objects like asteroids and supernovae. Science is still happening. It’s not quite full stop as far as monitoring the skies. Many of these smaller facilities only require one or two people on site to fix problems. So there’s much less danger in this case.
Related to my job at the observatory, I heard an interesting statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Infectious Disease Specialist. In an interview with CNN, he said, “What we’re seeing right now are some favorable signs. It’s looking like that in many cases particularly in New York we’re starting to see a flattening and turning around. We would want to see … I would want to see a clear indication that you are very very clearly and strongly going in the right direction.” What really struck me in this description of early signs the COVID-19 pandemic may be improving is how much it reminded me of how I describe safe conditions to open the telescope for observing after bad weather has closed us down. Let’s say humidity or wind are too high for the telescope to be open safely. We have officially stated limits for when we can open, but sometimes I don’t open right at those limits and I give an explanation similar to Dr. Fauci’s. It’s all too easy for wind or humidity to have a momentary downward blip, then come up again right away. We want to see a clear indication that conditions are improving. Let’s hope the pandemic turns around soon and we get the clear, strong indications that we’re moving in the right direction.