California: Part One

astronomy, phd, travel
Well, it’s little over a fortnight since I was last in the US preparing for my return home. Wow, I can’t believe it wasn’t so long ago! Since that time we have had a large ash cloud grounding around 60% of European flights. I consider myself particularly lucky I am now back home (and on terra firma). I’ve been dying to write about my trip during and since then but time has not allowed there nor here. Now finally I can. 🙂
The couple of weeks I spent in the US went by remarkably quickly, though oddly slowly too and it seemed like I was there more like a month. It was a truly fantastic experience and one I will always remember. It was my first transatlantic flight (awww me!). It was a great opportunity for the benefit of my research and a great chance to network with those colleagues in my field. An important part of the trip was an observing run at Mount Palomar, near to San Diego, using the 200 inch telescope. It marked my first training opportunity for such a facility.

Being my first flight, I was not too sure exactly what to expect. I’m “used to” cheap airlines and generally flying on a Boeing 757, a much smaller aeroplane. I knew this would be a considerably larger plane but it still took me aback a little to the enormity it. The time aboard the plane was perhaps the most tiring. You can pass the time by so much with a book, a film, TV and music although enduring this for 10 hours in a contained environment is a little difficult. You try to sleep but it is difficult to. The most tiring but necessary thing is to stay up and then sleep at the destination’s night time, meaning you spend over 24 hours with no/little sleep. It is fascinating but rather terrifying to think about the volcano that is causing all this disruption to flights at the moment. In fact we flew fairly near to Iceland (in Icelandic airspace) and there was a definite turbulence around there and we heard that is was an effect of the volcano from someone, although it was nothing to worry about. I have been thinking how lucky I am to be back home since the first announcements of the ash cloud causing such disruption. The most enthralling part of my journey however was when we passed over Greenland and at the time we passed over the country, the shadow of the glaciers gave us a fascinating display of landscape from our altitude. I really wish I took pictures of that but it can prove somewhat difficult to access belongings on a plane. *sigh*

The slightly annoying thing about the US was the requirement to fill visa waiver (ESTA) details not once, not twice but three times! First we filled out information on the website, then we ended up having to enter this on a display screen at the airport. After those couple of times we had to still fill out the same form to then hand to the immigration desk. It still confuses me to this day, why exactly we had to do that. Oh well.

So….I landed in the United States…and wow, what stunning weather. Most days I spent there the skies remained blue without a single cloud, the sun was shining and it was nice and warm (and mostly not too hot). One morning it really poured it down with rain and it seemed like prospects for the coming weekend for our observing would not be so favourable. Pasadena, where I stayed on the most part, is a great city with a good atmosphere and the surrounding areas, the views of the mountains and the palm trees were stunning.

A stop by The Cheesecake Factory wouldn’t be complete while in Pasadena. After all, this is the company Penny (from The Big Bang Theory) works for and being a big fan of the show it was great to see.

The majority of my time was spent at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I am thankful to Prof. Paul Weissman, our host for the entire trip for his time while at JPL. I mostly spent my time preparing for our observing run. I spent my time in preparation for that, determining which comets are best observed for the time we need and generating finder charts for those. My job is pretty much leading to take hold of data from a large programme called SEPPCoN (Survey of the Ensemble Physical Properties of Cometary Nuclei) which will form the bulk of my thesis and this observing run was part of that.

On one of the days Paul gave us the tour of the lab. It was a privilege to be shown around by an experienced scientist how has worked at the lab for over 35 years to give me an inside tour. It was truly remarkable to see the facilities…from the control room to the clean rooms and exhibitions.


Control room for the Deep Space Network, the Voyagers, Cassini Equinox, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and SOHO, amongst others.


The most awe-inspiring things to see were a scale model of the Mars rover, Spirit stuck on Mars and the development and construction of the Mars Science Laboratory due to be launched in Autumn of this year. For Spirit, I feel it was such a rare opportunity to see a scale model of the rover at its particular angle on the surface of Mars – truly phenomenal.

To the left is a full-size model of the Mars Science Laboratory (also known as Curiosity) to be launched later this year. The MSL rover will be over five times as heavy and carry over ten times the mass in scientific instruments as the Spirit or Opportunity rovers! It will be set down on the Martian surface using a new high-precision entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system in a guided entry and parachute and thruster descent.

To the right is the Mars Science Laboratory under construction at JPL.

(See more of my pictures from JPL!)

As well as JPL, I was able to visit many other sites (too many to go through in one blog post). The most important part of our trip was our observing run at Mount Palomar which I shall speak about in my next post amongst other things.

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