UPDATE: 6/17/10 – Paper published in Nature magazine gets worldwide scientific attention.
UPDATE: 10/23/09 – Sky & Telescope Magazine picked up this story and featured it in their online magazine!! Check it out – http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/65538577.html

Last week I traveled to Mexico, specifically to Mexico’s Observatorio Astronomica Nacional’s San Pedro Mountain Observatory in North Baja California state, located 9,100′ (2790 m) high in the San Pedro Martir National Park. Some folks at the MIT Planetary?Astronomy?Lab had enlisted me and four fellow members the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, to carry specially designed CCD cameras to remote sites across both hemispheres to capture data on the occultation of an approximately 500km diameter Kuiper Belt Object, also called a Trans-Neptunian Object. The professional-amateur collaboration ?has worked well in the past for organizations like the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, and it proved to work well for MIT in this investigation.

The ride from San Diego to Ensenada and then on to the observatory is about 350 miles, the last 150 or so on twisting roads that hugged the mountainsides. Fortunatly we were under the care of professional drivers in the observatory's huge 4-wheel drive utility vehicles. This is not a drive I'd want to do in my Prius!

The ride from San Diego to Ensenada and then on to the observatory is about 350 miles, the last 150 or so on twisting roads that hugged the mountainsides. Fortunatly we were under the care of professional drivers in the observatory's huge 4-wheel drive utility vehicles. This is not a drive I'd want to do in my Prius!

My host for the two day investigation was Dr. Raul Michel, a long-time member of the staff at the Institute of Astronomy at the Autonomous National Observatory of Mexico. Dr. Michel specializes in cataclysmic variables. Raul has conducted many investigations using the same 60" (1.5M) Richey-Cretien telescope that we we'd be using.

My host for the two day investigation was Dr. Raul Michel, a long-time member of the staff at the Institute of Astronomy at the Autonomous National Observatory of Mexico. Dr. Michel specializes in cataclysmic variables. He has conducted many of his investigations using the same 60" (1.5M) Richey-Cretien telescope that we we'd be using.

After we arrived I was assigned room 110 in the Visiting Astronomers quarters. The room was quite comfortable, with a warm bed covered with several of those colorful wool blankets the Mexicans are famous for, private lavatory and shower, a desk and Wi-Fi internet. Actually Wi-Fi was available throughout the facility, in the observatories, lounge and cocina (kitchen, or rather dining hall). On the lower level was an exercise room, a laundry and billiard and pingpong tables. The middle level, where my room was, also contained a TV room and lockers for the permanent staff. The upper level held the main office, staff astronomer's quarters and a computer room.

After we arrived I was assigned room 110 in the Visiting Astronomers quarters. The room was quite comfortable, with a warm bed covered with several of those colorful wool blankets the Mexicans are famous for, private lavatory and shower, a desk and Wi-Fi internet. Actually Wi-Fi was available throughout the facility, in the observatories, lounge and cocina (kitchen, or rather dining hall). On the lower level was an exercise room, a laundry and billiard and pingpong tables. The middle level, where my room was, also contained a TV room and lockers for the permanent staff. The upper level held the main office, staff astronomer's quarters and a computer room.

Raul and I were assigned VW #5 in order to get around the steep hills of the observatory. The ride from our dormitory to the 1.5M telescope was about 1.5km uphill. After the first day Raul let me drive this 1998 Mexican-built classic. It brought back memories of my old VW from my college years.

Raul and I were assigned VW #5 in order to get around the steep hills of the observatory. The ride from our dormitory to the 1.5M telescope was about 1.5km. After the first day Raul let me drive this 1998 Mexican-built classic. It brought back memories of the old VW from my college years.

We got right to work installing the camera on the telescope and testing it out in the daylight. We had a little trouble with the GPS unit but were able to get it stable enough for the night’s work.

MY FIRST OCCULTATION EVENT

We were fortunate that timing was perfect for a practice run on the first night. The target was (762) Pulcova, a main-belt asteroid discovered in 1913 by Grigory Neujmin and named after the Pulcova Observatory near Saint Petersburg Russia. Pulcova is 137 km in diameter and dark colored. It’s especially significant because in 2000?astronomers?at?the?Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii discovered a small, 15km moon orbiting Pulcova?about?800km away. This was one of the first asteroid moons to be identified. Pulcova was to occult TYCO?2314-01655-1, a 12.2 magnitude star in Triangulum.

bruceandscopeinred

Bruce bathed in red light at the base of the 1.5M, f/13.5 Richey-Cretein telescope. The scope was installed at the SPM Observatory in 1970 in collaboration with the University of Arizona and the patronage of Harold Johnson. The original aluminum primary is on display at the UNAM Ensenada campus, where the new Cer-Vit mirror was ground and polished. At the lower left, an arrow points to the specially-designed CCD camera.


The telescope slewed and found our target star without trouble. I’d never operated at such a large scope so this was a special treat. As Dr. Michel calibrated the finder and guide scope, I switched on the camera and GPS timer. And there they were, both the target star and Pulcova.

20091008(762)Pulcova_Berger

Dr. Michel reduced the data contained in the 1257 images to this plot, clearly showing the expected magnitude drop from 12.2 to 14.4.

ON TO THE KBO

Now on to our ‘real’ target, for the next night, or rather early morning, ‘our’ KBO would?occult?a magnitude 13.2 star, and this is what we were really here for.

We checked late occultation path predictions and weren’t sure whether we were going to see what we came here?for. The path had been revised to be about 1300km south of us but the certainty of the prediction was the reason we were here, because when combined with other observation reports, a negative sighting can help to define one dimension of the KBO. Dr. Michel and I met at 1:30am (08:30 UT) and drove to the?observatory.

The finder chart showing the predicted location of 55636 both 10.5 hours before (C) and 13.5 hours after (D) the expected occultation. The red arrow points to target star 2UCAC 41650964.

This ~3x3 arcminute finder chart showing the predicted location of our target KBO both 10.5 hours before (C) and 13.5 hours after (D) the expected occultation. The red arrow points to target star 2UCAC 41650964.

Our first goal was to attempt a long exposure to capture the KBO before the occultation started. Dr. Michel adjusted the telescope and focus, then engaged the auto-guiding system. ?We took one, five minute exposure?but it was not visible.?I set the automated system to take one, 0.5 second exposure every 1.5 seconds starting at 10:07UT.

This is rthe caption...

Right on time, our system started taking pictures. Our first shots came in and they looked good.

I COULDN’T HELP BUT LOOK UP
We took some focusing images and then sat back to wait for 10:00UT to start our integrations. While we waited I set up a tripod and a Canon XSi DLSR inside the observatory and took some wide angle sky pictures. The Pleides (M45) are clearly visible through the upper ring.

We took some focusing images and then waited for 10:00UT to start our integrations. While we waited I set up a tripod and a Canon XSi DLSR inside the observatory and took some wide angle sky pictures. The Moon peeks in at top-center and the Pleides (M45) are clearly visible through the upper ring.

I again set up my camera on a tripod while the shots were being triggered by the GPS?receiver. While Dr. Michel monitored the telescope tracking from inside the warm control room, I set a pocket timer to 5 minutes and during each interval I would go outside the observatory and take in the beautiful night sky.

Orion is clearly visible in this 15 second exposure shot at 21mm, f/4.0. The glow inside the observatory os from the PICO laptop.

Orion is clearly visible in this 15 second exposure shot at 21mm, f/4.0. The glow inside the observatory is from the laptop.

In all, we took over 2,000 images of the target star grouping between 10:07 and 10:56UT, and then 100 bias shots, then 30 flats. We submitted our data and are excitedly awaiting reports from the researchers at MIT.

BACK TO ENSENADA

Our ride back to Ensenada was uneventful, and I’m pretty sure I slept for part of the way.

Once we arrived on campus Dr. Michel showed me around the almost-new facility of the Observatorio Astron?mico Nacional. They have a beautiful facility that I look forward to visiting again.

One of the several antique telescopes on display at the Ensenada offices of the 125 year old Mexican National Astronomical Observatory (OAN)

One of the several antique telescopes on display at the Ensenada offices of the 125 year old Mexican National Astronomical Observatory (OAN)

My very sincere thanks go to Dr. Raul Michel and the staff at San Pedro Martir Observatory as well as the supporting staff at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Ensenada.

Muchas gracias por la hospitalidad brindada durante mi visita al Observatorio Astron?mico Nacional. Tuve una estancia muy buena y la comida y los telescopios se apenas a la derecha. Espero volver a SPM en otro momento.

Adi?s,

Bruce

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5 Responses to “Mexican Occultation Trip – Updated!”

  1. Joseph Raines

    Well done Bruce! It’s gratifying to see how amateurs are making contributions to science. I plan on using this and your post on asteroid occultations as examples to my 8th grade science class on how they can get involved. Again, good pictures and a good story. Wishing you much success!

    Joe Raines

  2. bab01824

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I became interested in astronomy as a high-schooler but regret that I didn’t get serious about it until much later in life. I have caught a fever of sorts where all I think about these days is what can I do to enrich our knowledge of the universe we’re part of. To your 8th graders I’d like to say that whether you want to be an engineer, a scientist, teacher, artist, writer, architect, optician, work with the public or build things there’s a place for you in astronomy.

    In addition to this trip, I have also built several telescopes, designed mechanical mounting systems, worked with electronics, cameras, taught kids about the heavens and even helped repair a large research telescope – all in the name of astronomy. There’s so much room for so many diverse skills in the field.

    Keep up the good work, and best wishes for clear skies in your area!

    Bruce Berger

  3. » Blog Archive » Article on KBO TX300 Published in Nature

    [...] written about my personal KBO55636 adventure before – capturing the object eclipsing a star using the 1.5 meter telescope belonging to the [...]

  4. Randa Clam

    Man this is why i just love the internet…it gives us free valuable information..and when i see posts like this it really makes me happy and thankfull to the person who wrote and posted it …thanks so much

  5. » Blog Archive » Article on KBO 2002 TX300 Published in Nature

    [...] written about my personal KBO55636 adventure before – capturing the object eclipsing a star using the 1.5 meter telescope belonging to the [...]

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