Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: Rachel Osten

Hot Summer, Hot Science (Part II)

September 1, 2010 by Rachel Osten
This cross-section of Hubble shows the instrument bays highlighted in yellow and red. (Credit: ESA)

This cross-section of Hubble shows the instrument bays highlighted in yellow and red. (Credit: ESA)

Observing with Hubble is a little different from observing at a ground-based telescope. The commands that tell Hubble where to point and which instruments to use are generated weeks before the actual observations, then “uploaded” to the spacecraft’s onboard computers to execute.  The sequences of observations have to be presented in advance, so they can be checked by scientists here at the institute.  I am one of those scientists.

The Hubble Space Telescope has very sensitive instruments, and this review is very important, because a few of those instruments can be damaged if too much light falls on them.  I am responsible for ensuring the safety of the observations.  This can often mean telling astronomers that an observational setup must be changed, or a different target must be selected, to protect the instruments.

This process, which can be tedious at times, is necessary so the instruments stay healthy and capable of obtaining even more ground-breaking results. It also gives us a glimpse into the kinds of science that Hubble will be doing in the coming year – hot science results to warm those cold winter months just around the corner.  And based on the recent weather trends, those winter temperatures can’t come soon enough!

Hot Summer, Hot Science (Part I)

August 24, 2010 by Rachel Osten

blog_2010_08_24Here in Baltimore, we have been experiencing record-high temperatures and humidity.  The weather is being matched in its intensity by the exciting science going on at the Space Telescope Science Institute, home to Hubble’s science program.

The institute attracts scientific visitors from around the world, eager to share their latest ground-breaking results with the experts here. In fact, there are enough science coffees, talks, journal clubs, colloquia, etc. here that you could fill a day listening to other people talk about science without doing any of your own!

With so much going on, it’s easy to miss out on the science being done by a colleague down the hall. In order to remedy this situation, we have instituted a summer colloquium series that focuses on science results from members of our staff.  Talks so far have ranged from stars being shot out of the Milky Way to explorations of galaxy evolution.

It’s interesting to hear what others on the science staff do with their science time. I gave one of the first talks of the summer, to a packed audience. The (shortened) title of my talk was “Lighting up Stars.”

NASA operates satellites that take beautiful images of magnetic loops sticking up out of the surface of our Sun. These loops shine in X-rays, but most stars are points of light, so we can’t see what their structures look like.

My talk discussed a new X-ray diagnostic that lets us place constraints on the sizes of structures in Sun-like stars. We can use innovative techniques like this to get information on these hot, loop-like structures in other stars.  This is important for placing our Sun in context: although it is the one star we can study in close-up detail, it is only one star, and being able to compare its properties with other stars gives astronomers more insight into the processes at work in Sun-like stars.

What a long, strange SMOV it’s been …

September 15, 2009 by Rachel Osten
Two of the new images taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, NGC 6302, popularly know as the "Butterfly Nebula" (top), and globular star cluster Omega Centauri (detail, bottom).

Two pictures from the upgraded Hubble Space Telescope: the Butterfly Nebula (top) and globular cluster Omega Centauri (detail, bottom).

Here at the Space Telescope Science Institute we are recovering from a whirlwind summer commissioning the new and repaired instruments on Hubble. Our public unveiling last Wednesday was a rocking success, judging from the reactions: the Internet was abuzz with comments, and tens of millions of you were hungry to see the images and get your hands on them. The network here at the Institute was considerably slower than normal on Wednesday and Thursday — not that we minded, as we all knew the reason why!

You might be thinking that we wizened astronomers are used to seeing such amazing images all the time, and are jaded by this awesome display of Hubble’s power. It’s not true, though. The auditorium here was packed with people eager to watch the press conference and see the results of our hard work, and almost everyone was seeing these results for the first time. I’m on the team that handles one of Hubble’s new instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), and even I hadn’t seen the results beforehand.  It was amazing to see the images of the butterfly nebula, and the dramatic reds and blues of the star cluster Omega Centauri.

The targets for these early release observations were chosen not just for the stunning presentations they make at press conferences, but for the legitimate science that can be done with the data. And so it was fitting that at our Friday morning coffee last week, only two days after the press release, we scientists were eager to discuss some of the first papers that had already been submitted on the science from Hubble’s new instruments.  These papers detailed discoveries of some of the youngest known galaxies, which would not have been visible without Hubble’s new instruments. Discovery of these young galaxies will now become routine, as the search turns to even younger galaxies.

The process of adjusting Hubble, called Servicing Mission Orbital Verification (SMOV) has not finished yet; some remaining calibration and confirmation data remains to be taken. The emphasis now is on routine operation of Hubble’s instruments for astronomers who have been waiting for their long-promised observations.

The tedious process of documenting all the activities that took place over the summer is also ongoing, but it’s nice to be able to reflect on the summer with a smile on my face and a few new images for my computer background, knowing that Hubble has a new lease on life and is going as strong — if not stronger — than ever.

Coffee + Donuts + Morning Meetings = Checking out Hubble

June 17, 2009 by Rachel Osten

blog_06_17_09It’s been a couple of weeks since the astronauts safely landed after their repair mission to Hubble, and the public’s attention has turned to the current news of the day. But for a large number of people, the servicing mission is not done. In fact, it won’t really be over until the end of the summer.

We want to make sure that the instruments are working at their peak conditions before that point, so we are sure that the best science that can be done with Hubble is being done. The instruments on Hubble are complex and require careful check-out before they can be used for routine science operations. At times, the slow pace can be frustrating. It’s a series of baby steps, and after each step conditions are evaluated before going on to the next one. But this is all designed to catch anything out of the ordinary before it could become a problem that gets out of control.

Activities occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Hubble doesn’t know about evenings and weekends, and so, during this phase, neither do the scientists and engineers working on the check-out activities.

One main feature of the summer activities is a daily morning meeting, where people working on all aspects of the telescope gather to give updates on the status of their piece of the Hubble pie — ranging from the power supply to the instruments, from scheduling to data archiving.

The meeting is early in the morning (for astronomer-types used to staying up late!) and is composed of NASA scientists and engineers  who can meet on-site, along with scientists on instrument teams phoning in from other places. Several of the instruments have had their first light from space, but don’t expect to see these on the Web anytime soon; they are only the first of many exposures of cosmic sources designed to test the inner workings of the instruments.

The acronyms fly fast and furious to describe the details of each instrument — the meeting would probably be twice as long if everything were spelled out! It’s a stretch to connect the flow charts and diagrams with the up-close images of Hubble taken when the astronauts had their hands on the telescope, but it is all the same telescope.

Hubble will soon be producing its amazing data better than ever, thanks to the efforts of everyone over this summer.

It Takes an Institute

May 21, 2009 by Rachel Osten

Hi. I’m Rachel Osten, and I’m an astronomer here at the Space Telescope Science Institute. In this blog, I’d like to share with you some of the “behind the scenes” activities that astronomers do here at the institute. 

It really does “take a village” to run Hubble. Our village is the Space Telescope Science Institute, located in an unassuming building on the Johns Hopkins University campus. The scientists and engineers here all share the same goal of ensuring that Hubble produces top quality science; each of us has our own part to play in making sure that happens.

There is a definite level of excitement at the institute right now, as we all eagerly watch the activities of the astronauts. At work on Friday, many offices had a Web browser open to NASA’s webcasting, to watch the astronaut’s activities high above us. You could hear the voices of the astronauts and the folks at Mission Control in Houston floating through the halls, which made walking down the hall to get some coffee an “out of this world” experience. The auditorium, normally reserved for scientific talks, was broadcasting the servicing mission on NASA TV, as were the TVs in the cafeteria. It was hard not to notice that the tension level had gone up, and the brief “hiccups” that occurred on Friday were discussed at informal gatherings, as were congratulations to the members of the instrument team that had a successful installation.

As I write this, the astronauts are installing one of the instruments that I work on; the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS). Tomorrow the astronauts will repair another instrument, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which I have used for my own research. It is a wonder to see in real-time the astronauts working on these instruments, and to feel the connection between their activities high up in space, and my own here on the ground. 

The astronauts are the most visible part of the repair and installation of Hubble’s cameras, but there are many activities before and after the astronauts’ servicing mission that are needed to make sure that scientists can make the best use of Hubble. Although the servicing mission lasts about 10 days, it will take most of the summer to check out the instruments. Having observed some test data from COS, I am eagerly waiting for the opportunity to get my hands dirty seeing what the “real” data looks like.