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Snowed In

This week was the fourth commissioning run for GPI and I was happy to be back at Gemini to help. When we arrived it was a little cloudy, but just as beautiful as I remembered.


This week predicted an unfavorable forecast; the first several nights battled cloud cover and high winds, which meant a lot of engineering tests and fewer opportunities to actually look at the sky. Clouds make for some really fantastic sunsets, though.IMG_3126


With a the storm rolling in last night with high winds we were unable to open the dome. We stayed over night with the hope of bright eyed astronomers that it would not snow and we would have clear skies for Saturday. In the morning we woke up to a winter wonderland.


Every so often our own planet reminds us to take a break from work and build a snow..thing.

During the snow storm on the 4th GPI commissioning the team builds a snow sculpture!


SPIE Montreal for the GPI team: work, social event and a landslide of papers

One of the walls of GPI-focused papers at #SPIEastro in Montreal on Monday June 23 (credit: M. Perrin)

One of the walls of GPI-focused papers at #SPIEastro in Montreal on Monday June 23 (credit: M. Perrin)

Hello all,

It was an important week for the Gemini Planet Imager Consortium. Several of us met at SPIE Astro in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to present our work on GPI. Katie Morzinski  wrote a blog post describing the GPI -focused events at the conference, so I will briefly give my perspective.

Arriving at Montreal by train. (credit: F. Marchis)

Arriving at Montreal by train. (credit: F. Marchis)


GPI at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation

Members of the GPI team recently attended the biennial SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation conference. This time it was in Montreal at the end of June, and you can check out #SPIEastro to find out more about the general topics covered at the conference.

Bruce professing at Jerome’s poster.

After the conference, the presenters write manuscripts on their work and these are published in the Proceedings of SPIE. Last night we had a GPI “paper splash” of SPIE pre-prints at the Astro-ph ArXiv. There are 18 of them — that’s a lot of work from the GPI team! Thanks to Quinn for posting.


Gemini Observatory reveals the GPI programs selected for 2014B

Some news from Gemini Observatory,

Gemini Observatory has revealed the list of observing proposals scheduled in 2014B (the second half of 2014)  that will use the GPI instrument. Those programs focused on the search for companions around nearby stars and also stars known to possess a disk and/or a planet by radial velocity. Other groups are using the quality of data provided by GPI to study planets already imaged with previous instruments, such as the HR8799 system and Beta Pic b. Their goal is the study the atmosphere of those planets and also to collect more astrometric positions to refine the orbit of the exoplanet.

Gemini South Telescope on the top of Cerro Pachon (credit: Marshall Perrin)

Gemini South Telescope on the top of Cerro Pachon (credit: Marshall Perrin)


First Observing Run

I recently returned from the third commissioning run for the Gemini Planet Imager. Up until now, I had never been observing. I had never even seen the Milky Way. And as far as firsts go, I hit the jackpot — my first observing run at Gemini South, commissioning GPI.

Pointing to Gemini

Up on the mountain for 6 days, sunset to sunrise we busily work to gather light from the sky into GPI. But everyone takes a few moments during the night to step outside and look at the sky with their own eyes — no one misses the opportunity.

I’ve always lived in a city where only a handful of stars are visible at best. While I was always fascinated with the universe (especially thanks to fantastic Hubble press releases) I guess astronomy never felt that accessible to an urbanite like me, for whatever reason. By some stroke of luck, this May I found myself surrounded by mountains and stars, sitting in the control room of a massive telescope filled with technologically impressive instruments and equally impressive brains grasping for answers from the sky. I am definitely fulfilling a childhood dream.

While taking data in the control room, the tone is mostly quiet concentration and focus. But when we get to see the 8-meter move, everyone watches in excitement and awe. Luckily, I hit record.

This has been one of the most interesting and exciting trips I’ve taken. I have an added appreciation for the Gemini Planet Imager and its operation after being on the front line. GPI is not only a platform for great science but an amazing resource and opportunity for the students that are part the commissioning workforce.

GPI 3rd commissioning run — Astrometric calibration with a little help from MagAO

Astrometric calibration is critical for GPI: When we see a faint dot near a star, the best way to check whether it is a planet orbiting that star, versus whether it is a background star along the same line-of-sight, is to compare the astrometry at a later date. Astrometry means measuring the stars — measuring the exact position in arcseconds and angle from North. But to figure out the size of our pixels on the sky, and the orientation of our camera and which way is North, we have to observe known groups of stars and measure their separations and angles. Then we compare our measurements to those from other instruments and tie that back to basic calibrations done in the lab with pinhole masks to create a common reference frame. This is how we calibrate astrometry.

A handful of faint stars clustered around a bright guide star makes for an excellent astrometric calibration field. These are images of the same field with MagAO/VisAO in z’, MagAO/Clio in H-band, and GPI in H-band. VisAO images courtesy Jared Males, Clio images courtesy KM, and GPI images courtesy Jason Wang.

But the field of view of GPI is very small, and it is hard to find a group of stars that are very close together, that also have a bright enough guide star for the AO system. (more…)

Tour of the Telescope

Yesterday, we had a chance to see the telescope in all of its glory. And it is HUGE!

The Gemini South Telescope with the dome lights on.

The Gemini South Telescope with the dome lights on.

It really makes you appreciate the amount of equipment you need to directly image these faint extrasolar planets that are orbiting other stars. Andrew, the telescope operator, then pointed the telescope down so that we could get some nice photographs with the 8-meter mirror. Here’s my telescope selfie:


Telescope selfie!

Telescope selfie!

The 8 meter mirror is so big it’s hard to fit into one single shot. This was the best I could do. Although some others are a bit more serious about their photography…

Markus sprawling out to get a nice shot of Lee, a journalist visiting us, and the telescope mirror.

Markus sprawling out to get a nice shot of Lee, a journalist visiting us, with the telescope.

Before the sun fully set, I ran outside to grab this image of the telescope dome open.

The telescope dome open at sunset .

The telescope dome open at sunset .

Now back to observing!

GPI 3rd Commissioning Run – Introduction

Hello GPI fans – this is my first post at Cosmic Diary. I’m a NASA Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona and a member of the Gemini Planet Imager science team. While I was at UC-Santa Cruz for my PhD, I worked with the PI, Bruce Macintosh, to develop MEMS deformable mirrors for GPI. These days, I spend a lot of time in Chile commissioning extreme AO systems, which is pretty fun! Specifically, I’m usually working on and blogging about the Magellan AO system, MagAO.

Sunset at Gemini

But this week, I’ve come down to Chile to help with GPI’s 3rd commissioning run. I’m excited to be here and to see GPI on sky!


Characterizing the exoplanet HD 95086b with GPI.

Another week and yet another article based on GPI data has been accepted for publication. A team led by a European astronomer has analyzed observations of the planetary system named HD 95086, which has been known since last year for hosting an exoplanet, named HD 95086b. GPI data was extremely useful in confirming that the planet is co-moving with its star and in constraining its properties, such as its temperature and composition.


Final images of the HD 95086 system at H (top) and K1
(bottom) bands from two different data analysis pipelines. The planet (arrow)
is detected in all images.


The orbit of the exoplanet Beta Pictoris b – The first peer-reviewed article with GPI

Following our very successful first light observing runs in late 2013, the first publication based on Gemini Planet Imager observations is now complete!  It has been accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesas part of a special issue on exoplanets, and is now available on Astro-ph. We report in this publication the performance of the Gemini Planet Imager based on the first light tests. The first scientific result demonstrates that right from the start, GPI has been performing well enough to yield new insights into exoplanets: Our astrometric observations from November 2013  gave us important new information on the orbit of the planet Beta Pictoris b.

Screen shot 2014-04-03 at 5.14.44 PM (more…)