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Observing distant galaxies

Cover shot – The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope – with myself barely visible in front. Photo credit: Ugnė Dudzevičiūtė.

As a PhD student in astrophysics, an exciting possibility is being sent to a telescope in some exotic, faraway location for observing – making sure the telescope operates properly and getting data for your own research. The nature of astronomy forces us to build telescopes on top of mountains and in dry deserts – locations which are rarely accessible to people who don’t work in this field – in order to allow us to see beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

I have just begun the second year of my PhD in astrophysics, for which I use observations of very distant galaxies (in many cases over 10 billion light-years away) to understand how they formed and evolved to become those we see in the local Universe. I have been fortunate enough in the last year to travel to both Hawaii and Australia for observing. This consisted of 12 flights spanning a total of almost 40,000 miles of travel, and two distinct experiences.

The town of Hilo, Hawaii is home to Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world, where the altitude and low humidity provide some of the best conditions for astronomical observations in the world. I spent 10 days on the mountain in March of this year, sleeping during the day and observing with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) at night. JCMT (cover image) is a telescope operating at submillimetre wavelengths (in between infrared and radio on the electromagnetic spectrum), which astronomers use to look at some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe, many of which are invisible at optical wavelengths. Observers at the JCMT work in a control room within the dome which houses the telescope, and this puts you metres away from the instrument of which you are in control.

Sunset on Mauna Kea, overlooking two dishes from the Submillimeter Array telescope. Photo credit: Ugnė Dudzevičiūtė.

In October I was given the opportunity to travel to Sydney to observe with the Australia Compact Telescope Array (ATCA) for a collaborator. ATCA is not one telescope, but an array of six, which combine light at radio wavelengths to study distant galaxies in greater detail than is possible with a single telescope. Unlike the JCMT, ATCA is operated remotely from a small office in a research facility in the suburb of Marsfield, with the actual telescope being located over 300 miles away near the town of Narrabri.

The two experiences were both similar and distinct in many ways. Observing is a tiring and, at times, somewhat dull process – a lot of time is spent sitting in front of a multitude of computer screens, and depending on the type of telescope you’re using, the weather can often prevent you from observing at all. Mauna Kea provided me with breathtaking (literally – the telescope sits at an altitude of over four kilometres) views of the night sky, whereas in Sydney life felt not much different than usual despite being on the other side of the world. On the whole, I got to travel to two amazing places, an opportunity that I would not have had otherwise, and gain valuable experience along the way.

Exploring Sydney in my free time!

I have fond memories of both trips and I am very grateful to have had these opportunities. In this day and age, having an astronomer physically visit an observatory is a rarity and a luxury, and I can understand why – in many cases, there’s simply no need. As astrophysics has advanced, the individual arts of operating telescopes and interpreting the data they provide have been separated, so it is both thrilling and insightful to experience first-hand the operation of these instruments which are so symbolic of our advancement in science and technology.

Jack Birkin

Hi! I’m Jack, a second-year PhD student studying Astrophysics. Specifically, my work involves using observational data to study some of the most distant galaxies in the Universe. Outside of my research, I love to play the drums, guitar and piano, and I am a keen follower of football, golf, snooker, F1 and tennis.
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