News

Viewing posts from March, 2012

First 1-meter installed at McDonald Observatory

The first 1-meter telescope was installed this morning at McDonald Observatory!  Crews from both LCOGT and McDonald made sure that the installation went smoothly.  Below are some of the first pictures of the 1-meter telescope being (gently) placed in its new home.

First 1-meter Telescope Ships to Site

Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) shipped their first in-house designed and fabricated 1-meter telescope to McDonald Observatory today. Final assembly, balancing, and testing was completed over the last month and on March 26, the telescope was dismantled and packed for shipping. The truck loaded up and pulled out this morning. This marks a critical milestone for LCOGT, as seven years of development, design, assembly, and testing came to fruition with a production telescope.

An Interview with Mike Falarski

This week’s interview is with Mike Falarski.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Mike Falarski: VP of Operations

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
MF: I negotiate the agreements at each node site to establish the terms and conditions of creating a node. I also coordinate the design and construction at the sites both internally and externally. I work on the planning and implementation of the deployments and on establishing the necessary contracts, agreements, and resources for node operation.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
MF: I grew up on a farm in Michigan. It was a great experience and I highly recommend it! I was lucky enough to meet my wife Judi in high school. I got my bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. (Go BLUE!!) After college I married Judi and we have two children and five grandchildren.

Before coming to LCOGT, I used to do aeronautical research for NASA, and facility engineering and ops for the NASA Research Center. I also managed Moffett Federal Airfield, built and ran the research campus of Phillips Electronics, and built and operated two museums.

I am also interested in golf, tennis, and travel.

JB: What led you to the career/job you are doing now?
MF: It was dumb luck and a great people network. It is who you know. I have the ability to know a little about a lot and make good decision based on a little. I have always been looking for the next opportunity and developing necessary skills, network, etc to allow it to happen.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
MF: I always arrive early because the morning is best part of the day. This is a hold over from the farm life. The rest of the day is mainly spent on phone calls, emails and meetings with a bit of creative work thrown in once in a while. I typically communicate with other sites in the evening due to time differences, but I try to limit this to keep Judi happy. My job has involved travel, travel and more travel, but happily there is less of that now.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
MF: Don’t! Seriously though, work hard. Do lots of different things. Learn to like multi-tasking. Don’t be afraid of change.

JB: How has working at LCOGT been for you?
MF: I have had some terrific jobs in the past but LCOGT has been a very unique opportunity even for me. I have learned over time that the current times we live in turn into the best of times in hind sight. I have that feeling about LCOGT all ready.

JB: Thanks Mike!

First Sedgwick Star Party of 2012

March 21 marked the first star party at Sedgwick for the 2012 season. Not only did we have quite an enthusiastic group, the astronomy club from Santa Barbara City College, but we had perfect (but cold) weather with great seeing.

An Interview with Martin Dominik

This week's interview is with Dr. Martin Dominik.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Martin Dominik: Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

JB: What does your work involve?
MD: First let me mention the work I do that is most closely related to LCOGT. I study extrasolar planets using a technique called gravitational microlensing. The University of St Andrews is buying into LCOGT's 1.0-meter network and funding three telescopes in exchange for observing time on the network.

Over the recent years, I have also spent an increasing amount of time on science outreach activities and education. There is no science without communication because science only becomes useful once communicated. That doesn't mean that everyone has to understand everything. The point is to get people wondering about science and using their brains. As scientists communicating with the public, we deliver the tool-kit, not the product.

The way we communicate has changed substantially with the Web, allowing communities to form regardless of geographical location. We are being given an unprecedented opportunity to embrace diversity, and I really like the idea of taking advantage of this so people can learn from a young age in a global context. In fact, I am set to embark on bringing together school groups from different countries to jointly work on astronomy projects. I had my own exposure to diversity from a young age, growing up in Germany and having been exposed to many different places, with many trips to Italy in particular. I am now actively contributing to the development of astronomical research in Iran and Qatar, as well as embedding these countries in an international outreach network. We are very happy that our partnership with LCOGT is not limited just to forefront science, but covers education as well.

I am also involved in science policy activities and have amongst other things provided written evidence for enquiries of the Houses of Parliament. I was also recently selected to the Global Young Academy and I am pushing hard there for projects about education, science for development, communicating science to the public, as well as providing the best possible environment for young researchers to unleash their creativity.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
MD: I have many interests ranging from history to mathematics, from geography to computer science, from chemistry to languages, and so on. I studied physics at Dortmund in Germany where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies. I studied physics for the generic skills and opportunities I felt it provided, and fell into astronomy by chance later on by following my curiosity.

I like to reinvent myself every three years or so. I don't like the idea of being an established scientist, I am constantly changing, questioning and doing new things. Maybe in three years time, I will be doing something that I cannot even imagine right now!

This is why I have given up on making detailed long-term plans. We have no idea where we will be in the future. You have to follow your ambitions. Everything you are doing is part of yourself and doesn't fall into categories. Similarly, disciplinary boundaries in science don't make sense. Problems don't follow disciplinary boundaries.

JB: What led you to the career/job you are doing now?
MD: While studying physics, I tended towards theoretical particle physics, but then an opportunity arose for me in gravitational lensing (and later more specifically microlensing), which caught my interest because it was a rather new area which meant not that much work had been done, so I had a great playing field. After having completed my PhD, I got a fellowship from the German Research Foundation to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and then moved to Groningen in the Netherlands when I received a Marie Curie fellowship. In 2000, I was struck by poor health and was unable to work for three years. After that I received an offer from St Andrews and went to Scotland. In 2006, I received a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and am still in St Andrews. I have never been a post doc in the classical sense and have always had the opportunity to drive my own agenda.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
MD: Each day is different. Being a born German, I have a plan for the day (and for the week, and for several months ahead), but not infrequently during the day something else emerges and by the end of the day, I've ended up doing something different from my plan. My days are spent doing things like analyzing data, writing publications, thinking, developing new concepts, presenting, too much traveling, arguing the case for science, and engaging in educational and outreach activities, which includes talking to everyone about scientific endeavour.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
MD: Think carefully about what it is you want to do. You can do a great job going for something you believe in. If you don't believe in what you are doing, do something different. Doing what you believe in still requires hard work and you need skills and the drive. You also need to know the difference between success and excellence. Success is meeting expectations. Excellence goes further. It's amazing what a single person can achieve if they go for it. Dreams don't need to stay dreams - they can turn into reality.

JB: How does astronomy apply to day-to-day life?
MD: We apparently have a fascination for other worlds, but this appears to be rooted in the deep interest in ourselves. Astronomy provides us with context and thereby helps us to understand humanity and its role in the nearer or farther environment. The unique remains enigmatic forever. Understanding the wider picture requires something to compare, and we actually learn from diversity. If there happens to be life on other planets, it will teach us about life on Earth. Rather frequently, the question pops up what we get from science, and in particular politicians keep asking it. But isn't it clear that being knowledgeable is advantageous to being ignorant?

JB: Do you personally think there is life on other planets?
MD: I have two answers for you to that question. The scientific answer is: we don't know. We simply lack evidence to say. The other answer is a philosophical one and comes from my personal discomfort with exactly (!) one instance of life in the huge universe. There are at least a hundred billion stars in our galaxy and at least a hundred billion galaxies in the universe. We are now finding that many of these stars have planets, and there could well be more planets than stars. If we are unique, we are the result of a fluke. The thought that we should not be here makes me shudder (although this might be true).

By finding other instances of life in the universe, we might get a glimpse of our future, and should there be life beyond Earth, I have rather little doubt that we will find it some day - maybe even sooner rather than later. Advances in technology can cause crucial changes, and cannot be predicted, not even by Albert Einstein. When Einstein first thought about the gravitational microlensing effect, he did not believe in it becoming observable. But he could not anticipate the transistor in particular, which not only revolutionized computing, but also paved the way towards our digital cameras. As a result, a phenomenon with “no great chance” to be observed eventually turned into a tool that is at the scientific forefront for finding very small planets. Technically, we could discover a planet with a mass as low as that of our Moon! It is the lucky-imaging cameras on the LCOGT network that could make the crucial difference.

A lot of the research related to extraterrestrial life focuses on habitability and what is usually called the habitable zone, but this is a reflection of Earth-centric prejudice and speculation. We don't know the probability or the conditions required for life. There are at least three ways to look for extraterrestrial life: go to other bodies in the Solar System, look for atmospheric signatures from exoplanets, and look for signals from other intelligent civilizations. The question about life beyond Earth is probably as old as humankind itself. Imagination is important and speculation has its role, but if we want to find life, we have to explore.

JB: Thanks Martin!