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December 17th, 2009

Walking on thin air

Don't expect much sanity from me for the next few days. I am grading 50 essays that count as final exams... while staying up all night to babysit a telescope, as we're doing light curves at the VATT for the next five nights. At 10,500 feet. The students may wind up with some very peculiar grades.

The VATT: our "advanced technology telescope" in southern Arizona.

Light curves: you sit on one object (in our case, a "centaur" -- an object that is half comet, half asteroid, and don't say that too quickly, orbiting between Jupiter and the regions out beyond Neptune) to see it slowly change brightness as it spins. The assumption is that it has a non-spherical shape, and that's what makes it change brightness; and that its spin axis is stable. If you observe such a light curve from three different aspects of the object's orbit, you can in theory work out a triaxial shape and a pole position, from which one can apply fancy mathematics that may not actually be valid, to come up with an estimate of its density... and I am rambling. The point of all this is to note that, first of all, this is dead boring work; and second, that you need about 15 years for a Centaur to have gone around enough in its orbit to make this figure, so there's not a real immediate payoff to this work. But it is important and someone has to do it.

And on the longest nights of the year. We won't be getting much sleep.

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brotherguy
brotherguy

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