Return to the South of France for a week of observing
Two years ago as an astronomy undergraduate, I'd spent ten days on a field trip to the Observatoire de Haute-Provence, learning what real astronomy was like. The finding of targets, the taking of observations, the drinking of coffee and the self-infliction of insomnia. I had loved it. And after my degree, I'd managed to get a toe in the door of this fun job with a PhD place. This year's batch of undergraduates needed a postgraduate to assist them in their observations, and I was on hand to provide it.
I was a bit nervous meeting the group as we got a train to Paris from Waterloo. In my year, our postgraduate assistant had not been popular, and was the butt of many jokes. I hoped I wouldn't suffer the same fate. But in Paris we had time enough to socialise over a coffee in a cafe near the Gare du Nord, and I felt that it wouldn't turn out that way. We got to the observatory after midnight, and it was great to be back.
The next morning I got up early, and went for a walk around the observatory site. I'd felt hugely nostalgic for my first trip here for a long time, and after leaving the first time I didn't expect ever to come back, so I was in a great mood. The skies were not clear, but I had a feeling that by the time we needed them to be, they would be.
The stars shone brightly on our first night. My task was to assist the group using the 80cm telescope, and I soon had terrifying flashbacks to my own experiences here two years ago. Most telescopes are totally automated these days, you just type in the coordinates of what you want to look at and off it goes. Not so the 80cm at OHP. Here you have to do it old-style, with setting circles.
Taking pity on the students, as he'd taken pity on me when I was here before, was Didier. Didier was a legend, remembered fondly by everyone in my year, and all years since. He didn't speak much English, and none of us spoke much French, but this was no barrier to understanding his many jokes or enjoying his company. He watched benignly as we all struggled to point the telescope at the target, assisting when necessary and offering comedy insults at all other times.
Luckily it didn't take too long to get on to the target and start taking data. We were looking at a star which was undergoing frequent small outbursts, and our target was brightening. My job done for now, I slipped out to take some photographs of the blazing skies.
After a couple of nights, the students were well into the routine and there was not so much for me to do. I had time to go out and watch the sky once the observations were under way. A bitingly cold mistral was blowing, the cold wind bringing clear skies but bad seeing. Our stars were badly smeared out by the turbulent atmosphere, which made the observations a bit more difficult but not impossible.
I went up to see what was happening at the 1.52m telescope. This one was much easier to use, being mostly automated. The telescope would slew pretty much to where you wanted it, and all that was required was a bit of fine-tuning with some plastic dials on a control panel that looked like something out of Blake's 7;. After I'd checked out their latest observations, I went up onto the roof, and saw three bright meteors blazing by.
In 1999, I'd forgotten to bring a cable release, and I'd also forgotten to bring gloves. Keen to get a star trail photo, I'd held the camera shutter down myself for 40 minutes, which nearly gave me frostbite. This time I'd learned my lesson. Back at the 80cm, I pointed the camera up, locked down a shutter release, and went inside to enjoy the warmth for three hours.
We finished observing each night as twilight began to light the sky. It always seemed like an incredibly long time from then until sunrise, and most mornings I didn't stay up. After a long winter's night at a telescope, only the most spectacular sunrise seems worth staying up for. But one morning, we got one. The sky was on fire, and a few of us went out to a small hill in the observatory grounds to watch.
On the wall in the 80cm telescope control room was a photo taken of the dome while it was being rotated. It looked really cool, and I wanted to have a go at reproducing it. I got my chance towards the end of our run when clouds started gathering as night fell, and it was clear we wouldn't be observing. I climbed up onto the roof of the control room, and Didier set the dome rotating. I opened the shutter and let the dome spin right around a few times, and the shot worked out nicely.
Later it cleared up a little bit. At the time we were in Provence, the space station Mir was approaching the end of its life, while the International Space Station had recently been put in orbit. During our visit, both space stations were visible in the early evening. On this particular evening, both would be crossing the sky within a minute of each other, passing through the constellation of Orion as seen from OHP. This would pretty much be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity if I could get it - the two space stations passing through a famous constellation, with a bunch of telescope domes as a foreground. Sadly the clouds didn't clear in time. I saw Mir going overhead, but the ISS was hidden by the clouds. Two months later, Mir re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, and burnt up in the skies over the South Pacific.
At the end of our seven nights of telescope time, we'd had five and half clear nights - not bad going for February. Satisfied, we packed up and headed for Avignon to catch the train back to London. I wondered if I would ever be back here again.
We got to Avignon with some time to kill, and a few of us visited the Palais des Papes. It was a warm day, much warmer here than at the observatory, 600m above sea level. We knew that back in London it would be cold again, and so we reluctantly boarded the TGV to Lille, and headed home.