First, some background: I was lucky to join in on some observing sessions at the big Hale scope at Palomar. Once in May 2007 and again in May 2010. I grabbed as many details as I could to use for this chapter, including my awe, as seen through my fictional character's eyes.
My husband Tim and I spent some time giddily exploring the big dome. It's BIG. The big Hale scope is like a semi truck balanced on its nose, but dwarfed by the massive dome around it.
We had some fun in our winter coats (it was freezing in the dome), exploring. These pictures can not convey how huge this dome is. One neglected side room had an antique pool table with ivory balls. Tim and I love playing pool--we did so on our first date--and we wondered whether Hubble and Hale played with that same pool table and balls. Would they be arguing about Newtonian mechanics as they did so?
When I heard the indescribable metallic bass squeal of the scope moving, I grabbed Tim's arm. I had never heard anything like that before in my life. It was a wonderful sound. We HAVE to capture this sound! I begged him. Tim happened to have his fancy Sony recorder so he agreed it was worth capturing. It would be hard to simulate such a sound from scratch.
We used that sound, later, in our movie, for our spacecraft's portal opening. So, if you watch our movie, listen for that sound. It's really the Hale telescope moving.
Later, I was thrilled learned that George Lucas also recorded the very same sound--that of the Hale telescope moving in its dome, and used it for Star Wars. Yeah, me and George, on the same wavelength. Doesn't that make me the George Lucas of Sister Bay, Wisconsin? Maybe a little.
On a mountain that was relatively quiet for southern California, the big Hale telescope on Palomar was taking in data. Chandra frowned over the many monitors at her station. Every now and then, a burst of soft keyboard chatter from across the room signaled Dave’s presence. As usual, it was just the two of them working together. The goal this week was to test the new interferometer’s ability to increase resolution, with a secondary goal of keeping each other awake in order to that.
She swept the little frizzle of dark hairs that kept falling into her line of sight and secured them, firmly stuffing them under her headscarf. She rubbed at her eyes and sucked down some more coffee.
She never could get used to this, staying up all night. She was irritated that she had not been able to sleep at all that day to prepare for tonight’s session. Her tired bones cried out for the tiny little cot in the nearby dormitory. The monastery.
That’s what everyone still called the rustic old 1940’s era astronomer’s dorm that was a short walk from where she now worked with the big scope. The popular explanation for the title held that the dorm’s occupants slept during the day to prepare for a night of data acquisition and were therefore required to take vows of silence to avoid waking each another. Signs posted all around the thin-walled dormitory reminded residents to walk softly and to refrain from speaking during the day.
Rumor also suggested that the dorm’s monastic title worked because in the past, the astronomers who used it were once exclusively male. Also, exclusively white. Two things she was not. She tried not to dwell on that.
Since the monastery once housed the likes of Hubble and Hale, being inside it had stimulated her imagination to excess. She couldn’t stop imagining these historic figures that she grew up revering and reading about in her school books. All night she had lain on her cot electrified, picturing them arguing over the expansion of the universe, perhaps arguing over the nature of the cosmos in the very room where she was trying to fall asleep. Her eyes kept skittering over the rough wood walls, half-hoping to be the first keen-eyed resident to find scratched into the wood framing a little Hubble was here. Meanwhile, from the room next door, Dave’s snores had thundered through her walls.
She tossed her paper coffee cup in the trash and refocused on her monitor.
She blinked. In the Observing Information window, under camera 2's T-Guider, a white dot jiggled in the center of the screen. Another artifact. Most artifacts resulted from using the wrong settings for the job, settings that could be fixed quickly. She looked over the photodiode intensity, the settings for stepping, sixteen-bit, piezo loop, random on, feedback, and the SRC diode and tracker laser were on.
She could walk down the hall to inspect the telescope itself but dismissed the thought. She looked at the telescope cam, instead. Parts of the telescope visible on the camera monitor showed its surfaces in shades of black, white, and grey, each of the narrow fields of view not able to convey its entire bulk. Under its dark, cold dome, it poised as improbably as a semi truck balancing on its nose.
This didn’t make sense.
“Hey Dave, can you look at this for a second? It looks like a new object.”
The wheels of his chair squeaked as he slid over to another monitor. “That’s strange, it isn’t…”
His voice dropping away to nothing.
She peeked between the stacks of instrumentation manuals, binders, and monitors on the counter between them. Dave was staring at his monitor, rubbing his beard. He broke the silence with the rapid percussion of typing. “What do you have for a velocity?”
She looked. “Ninety-one kilometers per second!”
“This is weeeeird.” Dave’s face was now just inches away from his monitor. “It’s like it’s not in a passive orbit.” He typed some more, leaned back, and pointed at his monitor. “It’s deaccelerating…hey!” His head rocked back. “Where’d it go?”
She stared at her own monitor again and caught her breath.
The white blip was gone.
“Oh, come on!” Dave was wheeling around to look at all the other monitors. “Get it back!” he cried.
Chandra spent the next few minutes looking at all the camera windows, toggling controls on and off. The object, whatever it was, failed to reappear.
Dave let out a sigh, the sound of air escaping from a punctured balloon. “Well, that was weird. Back to work, then, I guess.”
Her voice graveled from exhaustion. “I guess.” In her sleep-deprived state, if she had been alone, she might have convinced herself that she had imagined the blip.
The wheels of Dave’s chair squeaked again as he glided across the floor to another monitor. In the silence that followed, she guessed that he was still thinking about it. She heard him clear his throat. “Probably another artifact.”
She smiled to herself. She leaned over the back of her chair and angled her head to locate her coworker behind the row of monitors between them. “Or, right now, there could be an unusual object headed straight for Earth.”
He turned. He raised his eyes to meet hers for a moment. Then, they both burst into laughter.
The laughter felt good, energizing her. She rose from her chair to get herself another cup of coffee. “Either that,” she said, still laughing, “Or our iodine reference cell needs recalibrating. Probably the latter, I’m thinking.”