Project Overnight

Why stop now?

Last year I had what passes for an epiphany. I was exploring a really fantastic alpine valley on the far side of the Continental Divide, off-trail, in a place where probably fewer than a dozen people visit all year (if that). There were lots of interesting spots to explore, but I was ten miles and 2000 vertical feet of climbing from the car and worried about getting back over the Divide before afternoon lightning storms threatened. Plus, the area I was in was really gorgeous and it would be really nice to be able to sit for a few hours and contemplate this peaceful, awesome place rather than just keep running with occasional five-minute breaks for snacks.

The epiphany was this: if I could find a way to spend the night on my runs, I’d be able to thoroughly explore these amazing, remote places. How much gear would I need to bring to overnight in something like this? Continue reading

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The Case of the Dog that Didn’t Bark in the Night

The occultation path, global scale. Shadow moves from east to west at 24 km/sec.

Last month I was part of a big observing campaign to catch an occultation of 2014MU69. It was an adventure on many different levels and the whole process was fascinating (not always fun, but certainly fascinating). Detailed calculations were carried out to predict where the shadow of this tiny chunk of ice would sweep across the earth. Dozens of telescopes in those regions watched carefully for a faint star in Sagittarius to blink out for a second or two and then reappear. This was enormously challenging on many levels from technical to logistical to personal, but that is a story I’ve already told.

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See the world on less than three hours of sleep a day!

Big planes. The novelty wore off surprisingly quickly.

In a shocking turn of events, I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road past fields full of ostriches and citrus trees with warning signs that say “Baboons!”. Less than two months ago, I got a call asking “Would you be willing to come to some place in the southern hemisphere to help us out with an occultation observation?” This put a bit of a kink in my summer plans, in particular a big race I’d been training for, but when this opportunity strikes, grab your bags and hit the road. Adventure is where you find it and there was certainly plenty of adventure to found, as long as you don’t insist on much sleep.

Even in the best of circumstances, I don’t sleep much when I travel. Usually I’m busy with work stuff (whatever that may be) and fill up non-working time exploring. Even if it’s a pretty “uninteresting” location, I’ll get up early and go for a quick reconnaissance run or something. I know this and have accepted it about myself; sleep comes as a third priority. But in order to be functional on an intensive ten-day observing trip to the opposite hemisphere, fraught with all kinds of logistical challenges, managing my sleep schedule would be crucial.

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It worked?!

It worked!

I don’t want anyone to die of suspense after last week’s cliff-hanger, so here is a quick resolution to the South Africa Occultation story (see here for part 1 and part 2).  Team 13 (myself and Simon along with Alistair the documentary maker) ended up having decent (though not great) weather on our event night.  Recall that concern for bad weather is what sent half our team driving across the Karoo in the night at the last minute.  Clouds were in the sky periodically for us, but never covered the actual field.  A less-than-steady mounting situation and less-than-perfect seeing gave us slightly degraded image quality, but we did what we could  The teams who drove east apparently had great seeing as well (and some amazing you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up stories from their adventures and misadventures).

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The things we do for science

Equipment checkout in Capetown.

A few weeks ago I posted an article about our occultation-chasing trip to the Southern Hemisphere and some of the science behind what we’re doing. Three weeks ago, I didn’t even know which continent I would be visiting. Since then, a lot has happened and most of it is very different than I’d imagined (except for irregular sleep schedules part). For instance, I didn’t expect that my original blog article would be so popular and get picked up by so many places. Nor did I expect that I’d be updating you all on the eve of the main even while sitting on the verandah of the strangest “hotel room” I’ve ever had the pleasure of utilizing, staring out over a lovely bend in the Oliphants River north of Clanwilliam, South Africa. I’ve got a “backie” (aka, large pickup truck) parked with a about five thousand dollars worth of telescope gear buckled, literally into the back seat with a sheet of plastic thrown over it and I had a crash course in driving said backie with a finicky manual transmission on the other side of the road in the middle of the night. Also, I’m having my morning coffee at 1 pm because that’s how we astronomers roll. Continue reading

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An Unexpected Journey to the Southern Hemisphere?

Artist’s rendition of New Horizons at MU69.

Normally my work life is not too exciting from an outdoors adventure standpoint. I mostly sit behind a computer writing code, writing papers, writing proposals, and writing recommendation letters. Or I’m jockeying powerpoint slides and waving my hands around at the front of large lecture-halls. Or I’m getting coffee or scrounging for left-over pizza in the fridge (actually, that happens a lot.) But every now and then, being an astronomer enables some pretty cool adventures. We have conferences (which are mostly boring) but sometimes they’re in interesting places like Venice or Hawaii and I can add on adventures. I sometimes go use large telescopes on remote mountaintops (which is cool for the first bit) and spend some daylight hours exploring the area nearby (also cool). But, very occasionally, it’s the work itself which is the adventure…

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James Peak Skimo Rematch

Making it look, just for a moment, like I don’t suck.

Back in the day when my quiver of skis was a lot more barren than it is today, I thought it would be a grand idea to skin up and ski down James Peak.  It turned out okay and was a hoot, but my equipment (in this case, a very skinny set of glorified XC skis with metal edges and some low, soft-leather boots in three-pin bindings) was laughable.  Consequently, I fell down a lot.

Fast-forward eight years…  more skis in the quiver, more miles under my belt, some harder (?), scarier descents, and another attempt on James Peak.  For once, I wasn’t organizing this one; Peter, Jake and Russ were headed out for some skimo and invited me along.

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