Astronomy


It’s been pretty hectic recently. I am in the middle of a major release software release for the Gaia photometric processing pipeline that will include a major overhaul of the DAL. But what has been really a big downer is that I recently learned that our best (and only) engineer is leaving the project at the end of the summer. She joined the project at the beginning of the year and since the very beginning she took care of several key aspects of the project and made significant contributions. But what is really depressing is that she was a very nice person to be working with: easy-going, yet committed and professional but with a good sense of humor. A real plus was that she immediately join in on our traditional Friday pub lunch as well. It did not last very long but it’s been an hell of a ride so far !

The only positive note is that she is leaving for personal reasons and not because she did not like the job (at least I hope so!). So now we are back into the job ads and interviews business and I really hope that by the end of August we will be able to find another suitable candidate to take over from September.

So here I am, still farting around with dodgy code, getting angry at developers who keep committing broken code to the trunk and lingering for a bit of vacation that will never come. How am I coping with all this ?  One of my favorite pieces of stand-up commedy, that’s how ! Enjoy,

I got back from my observing trip on the Big Island on the 24th of May but on the 26th I was on the road, or better the air, again on my way to Faro, Portugal. This time in full holiday-mode, with my son Martino and my wife Francesca.

I’ve finally managed to sort out the few photographs I took during my trip to the Big Island and posted them on my Flickr account. I did not have much time to retouch them but I still think they are decent enough… hey, I am not trying to win a contest !

To my utter disappointment I found out that WordPress (the hosted service, not the software) does not let me embed a Flickr slideshow into a post, nor embed an image. What a shame, Flickr is so ubiquitous that I can’t see why it is not supported ! Anyway, I guess I’ll have to use good ol’ links:

THEY ARE HERE !

The observing run sucked a bit because I never got a full night of observations but, on the other hand, I was very happy that working at high altitude was not bothering me at all. On the contrary, I managed to put together a major refactoring of the VISTA quality control software modules which was a real winner. It was a good trip also because I am now much more familiar with the observing procedures at UKIRT and therefore have a better understanding of why, every now and them, I might find some odd data sets while doing the data processing for CASU. The last time I observed was ages ago, back in 2005 at La Silla, so I really enjoyed being observing again. It gave me a nice feeling of being back to the basics (even though nowadays observing means more or less to click a couple of button with a little more excitement only if you are doing some spectroscopy). It was a romantic feeling because the age of astronomers sitting at the telescopes taking data all night long is nearly over, superseded by automated surveys, large programs and service-mode observing (it’s cheaper, and s0 the government can save some extra money to drop a few more bombs on some other country they don’t happen to like very much).

After the run I spent a few days driving around the Big Island to pay a visit to the several nice spots I did not have a change to see during my first visit with Francesca in 2002. What made the visit even better was that, after the observing run, I was taking advantage of the kind hospitality of Luca. We shared the office back during our PhD back in Padova. It is quite curious that he ended up being a support astronomer for the UKIRT telescope and I ended up being processing all the WFCAM data produced by UKIRT… it’s really a small world ! We had very nice meals in Hilo (Chinese, Country-style Japanese and Thai) and plenty of time to for light chats about our work and the nice interactions with ‘satisfied customers’, about trying to do home-style italian cooking in a foreign country and the funny situations italians always get involved in when living abroad (e.g. people telling you: ‘oh, you’re italian ! I wonder how is your carbonara chicken !?!’ and then trying to explain them that, well, carbonara chicken is neither an italian dish nor something an italian would normally be tempted by). It was good fun. My only regret is not having done this before when it would have been much easier for Francesca to come along as well ! If STFC doesn’t screw it up, it might still be possible in a few years time…

This is my third night of observations at UKIRT and so far it has been hopeless: humidity 100% and wind speed almost constantly above 35 mph (the limit for keeping the dome open). Here’s a screenshot of the UKIRT and JCMT web cams when we arrived at the summit around 18:10.

UKIRT webcam and weather info on 20090517 18:55

UKIRT webcam and weather info on 20090517 18:55

Right now I am trying to do some beta-testing of the VISTA quality control database ingestion modules but I am being held back by an outage of the beanstalk subversion service I am using. I am on the free plan so I can’t really complain, also because they seem to be doing some kind of system upgrade, but tonight seems to be a bit of a bugger ! I’ll try to post another update later on if the weather improves and we start observing.

Hi there,
it’s 20:21 here in Hawaii. I am currently in the control room of UKIRT on Mauna Kea at 4200m above sea level waiting for the humidity to drop. This is actually my second night here and so far it has not been great ! The weather is actually not that bad but there are some low clouds occasionally coming up and causing the humidity to spike.

I was quite worried about this observing run because I’ve never been working at such a high altitude. I am quite pleased that so far it has been going pretty well: no headaches nor any sickness. I’ve even been doing quite a bit of coding for the VISTA quality-control database which is not really bad considering that some people have rushed down the mountain because they show either minor or major symptoms of AMS.

Tonight we had a great sunset. I managed to take a few pictures as well but I forgot the USB cable down at the hotel so I will not be able to add the pictures to this post. In the meanwhile, if you want to get a feeling of how’s life up here, with a funny twist, have a look at the Hotel Mauna Kea video produced by a visiting astronomer:

Very busy period on both my main work projects: the Gaia mission and the Vista public surveys.

For the Gaia project we have been experimenting a bit with Hbase and Hadoop to deal with the bulk of the observations. Unfortunately we don’t really have the right hardware to carry out some decent stress-tests, but we should still be able to get a rough picture to decide what to do next. We have quite a big hardware purchase coming up and we need to get it right because the budget is tight and the time before launch (Feb/Mar 2012) is closing in. Hopefully by the end of next week we should be able to complete a few test run and compare the results with similar test where all the data was handle by an Oracle 10g database.

For the Vista project I really need to finalize the relational model for the quality control database schema. The main structure is there, but unfortunately some important details of the processing software are not well defined yet so I am struggling a little bit. The implementation uses Hibernate for the ORM and a custom-made framework to configure what information need to be extracted from the astronomical images (FITS files). The design is quite sound although, if I had an infinite amount of time and patience, there are a few loose ends that I would like to improve.

As a side-project (given that I haven’t got enough on my plate) I’ve been playing with some very popular Web 2.0 apps in an unconventional way. I don’t particularly find them that useful or interesting for their original purpose, but I think I can get something useful out of them. And, if you are curious, no, it has nothing to do with useless flashy crap and bodged Apple-wanna-be cover-flow heavy-weight rubbish. Oops, I’m about to get into rant-mode… but it is really too late for this now. I simply get pissed off when I hear people waffle about Web 2.0 apps and then, when you really look at it, all they have done is to display a bunch of images in a fancy and rather user-unfriendly way. Ok, enough ranting for today, I’ve finished my wee dram and it is about time to get some sleep !

One of the daily rituals of every astronomer is to skim through the arxiv for the latest pre-prints. Usually you get this habit when you are in grad school but then, as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to find some time to do it. It is not really a matter of procratinating it is just that you have more urgent things on your list requiring some attention. Actually, the daily ritual becomes the “oh-crap”-cry when you open you emal inbox and find out that half of your nice (and preciously rare) british sunny morning will go in fixing some boring thing that you can’t really ignore. (more…)