You're a budding professional astronomer looking through a university’s prize telescope when all the stars suddenly become triangles. Have you just made a Nobel-winning discovery of a new cosmological feature? Witnessed the start of an alien invasion?
More likely, you’ve accidentally deflated the airbags supporting the primary mirror.
Experienced astronomers know how to interpret and fix such observational quirks, but newcomers tend to be at a loss, particularly when first going solo. “Most of these problems occur at 4 a.m., when your brain cells have turned off and you have to stay up for two more hours to finish your observations” said University of Michigan astronomy graduate student Kaspar von Braun. “It's hard to solve problems at that hour; you can't reach anyone and have nowhere to go.”
In response, von Braun (“Werner was my great-uncle”) and his colleagues set up the Observational Mishaps website. It contains erratic images submitted anonymously by researchers and organized by symptom, including streaks, squiggles, vignettes and a category entitled “unsolved mysteries.” Next to each image is a diagnosis (“Dead ladybug on filter”) and a solution (“The ladybug was removed”). Available at any hour of the night, the site offers astronomers a down-to-earth catalog of common errors and quick fixes, saving valuable observation time.
The most devious gremlins are the subtle ones, von Braun commented. “If you look through the scope and everything is dark, you know right away that you forgot to open the dome. The worst problems are when you finish up after a night of observations and it's too late to do anything,” he said.
The website is devoted to the visible, infrared and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum, and has garnered favorable reviews from the astronomical community, said von Braun.
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