Sunday, 3 April 2011

Observing Saturn at the NASA IRTF

Tom Stallard and I, both from the University of Leicester, arrived here at Mauna Kea in Hawaii a couple of days ago and have already spent a full night observing the aurora of Saturn. On our first night we observed for a whole 12 hours which is great since we can observe a complete rotation of Saturn (10 hours), but it can also be somewhat intense, especially with the effects that 14,000 feet of altitude has on mental aptitude. Luckily, we did get some great observations of Saturn and Tom tested out the live streaming of our observations to the web - more on that later.

We are using an instrument on the NASA IRTF called CSHELL, a high resolution spectrograph that allows us to look emission from a molecular ion called H3+, emitting in the auroral region on the planet. These observations will enable us both to determine how the wind is blowing at these high latitudes and what the shape of the aurora is, which in turn will tell us more about the processes responsible for the emission.

All in all, we are going to observe here at the IRTF for 14 nights, scattered throughout the month of April. At the same time we are observing Saturn here from the IRTF, the Cassini spacecraft, which is in orbit about Saturn, will also observe the aurora, both in the infrared (as we are) and the ultraviolet. During this period the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) will also turn its eye towards the aurora Saturn, and as if all this wasn't enough, Tom will head down to Waimea to operate the Keck II telescope for a copule of nights - the world's largest infrared telescope. All in all, this mounts up to a very exciting and unprecedented series of observations - helping us to better understand how the aurora of Saturn is formed and how it evolves over time.

If you would like to look in on us while we observe, then head to: http://connect.le.ac.uk/maunakea - we are observing for the next week between midnight and 6am, Hawaii time. That's 11am and 5pm BST, or noon and 6pm CET.


Tom monitoring the incoming observations of Saturn's aurora. Note the image of Saturn as seen through the guide camera on the right.

Bill keeping an eye on the 1s and the 2s. Each monitor contains information about the status, health and movement of the 3.0 meter telescope.

The 3m NASA IRTF telescope and the shiny inside of the dome. The prime mirror cannot be seen from this angle, but is located in the base of the orange structure - at the top of which is the secondary mirror that reflects the light back down through a hole in the primary mirror to the CSHELL instrument. The height of the orange telescope truss is about 6 metres.

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