During the weekend of September 18th, five students and three faculty went on a trip to visit the MINERVA project in Arizona. MINERVA (MINiature Exoplanet Radial Velocity Array) is an array of four telescopes located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. “The purpose of the trip,” Dr. Swift remarked, “was to explore the possibility of Thacher establishing a relationship with the [collaboration].”
While MINERVA was located at CalTech, Dr. Swift was one of the project managers. During the summer, he met with the principal investigator, John Johnson, at Harvard. After telling Mr. Johnson about Thacher, its brilliant astronomy club, and its “uncharacteristically capable” students, they both agreed to bring a small group of proficient students to help out with tasks around the observatory and to see whether or not they had the skills and the maturity to be a part of such significant work.
In Arizona, the principal investigator joined the students—Katie O’Neill, Doug Klink, Asher Wood, Natalie Osuna, and Maya Wilcox— and faculty— Mr. Meyer, Dr. Swift, and Dr. Vyhnal—and gave them a full tour of the facility. The faculty and staff then assigned the students many duties to help with the project’s operations. After splitting into groups and delegating the tasks, the students were eager to start.
Three main jobs were essential to observatory’s operations. One of the most important responsibilities was to document the entire shutdown and reopening sequence for the array of telescopes. By recording the sequence in its entirety, the Thacher students documented a safe, reliable way to shutdown and reopen the array. Due to the Arizona monsoons, closing the array is a crucial task, and, thanks to the students, MINERVA will be able to protect their equipment without affecting its functions.
Another group of students was in charge of documenting the steps for removing and replacing instruments on two ports of each of the ten telescopes. They removed the camera and recorded the actions needed to place it back onto the telescope in a sound way. In addition, because the fifth telescope was not integrated, the students worked on troubleshooting the Python code that was in charge of the telescope’s functions by reading through the code and finding inconsistencies.
In response to the Thacher students’ and faculties’ incredible work, the project staff opened the a night of observation. When asked about the entire experience, Katie O’Neill, head of the Thacher observatory, replied, “Being up on the mountain with these experts in the field, and being able to learn from and ask questions of them, gave us an incredible glimpse into what it’s like to be an astronomer. When we were able to use one of the telescopes to look out into the night sky, it really just capped off an incredible trip.”
The Thacher students’ dedication to the work they accomplished while at the observatory and the maturity and competence they carried astounded the staff. In the final conversation with Dr. Swift, the project manager, Jason Eastman, stated, “I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.” Due to the amazing minds of the faculty and students that attended the trip, Thacher once again showed the professionalism, responsibility, and intelligence its students possess.