Tag Archives: observing

The past months

It is again the usual situation: I have not written anything here during the past months, but as always, this does not mean that I was not busy with various things basically all the time. So let’s have a short summary – in chronological order.

During November and December I played Uncharted 4 on the PS4, which looked very pretty, but progressed a bit slow for my liking, and the puzzles got quite repetitive after some time. For Christmas I got myself a new helmet (Giro Synthe MIPS) as a present, since my old one was getting way too old. Looks great, feels good. Then we spent two days between the holidays in Holland, visiting ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Nijmegen.

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The first day we had sunny weather and Den Bosch was a nice city to walk around, while the next day Nijmegen was grey and cold, but at least we met up with Steven for dinner (and for lunch we also found a great place with delicious healthy sandwiches and drinks). On the next morning I also got the scrape-all-the-ice-off-your-windshield experience for the first time… Although we celebrated New Year’s Eve at home, the night before we went to the Spaans Dak for a fancy dinner, which was nice.

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January was even colder than December. After cycling through the freezing fog in -5°C on the last day of the year (my coldest ride ever), I also biked through snow and freezing rain with my MTB during the first days of 2017 (this ride covered me in a layer of ice, and cost me a bit of skin around my left knee), and this kind of weather stayed for the following weeks too. This made January my coldest month on the bike (so far?) with an average ride temperature of 0.6°C (over 875 km in 34.5 hours).

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I also got new glasses (my eyes did not get much worse, but my old lenses were so scratched from the years of cleaning that I really needed new ones), so now I have a slightly different look. Being a good citizen, I even went for a Belgian brand (Louis) for the frame. After all these expenses, I decided it was time to save some money, so instead of buying energy bars, I decided to make them myself. I used more or less the recipe from the Global Cycling Network, with some extra ingredients (and twice the amount to fill my baking tin), and the result was delicious. Since then I made a batch (almost 1.5 kg) every month. I also got a brighter front light (Lezyne Power Drive 1100XL) to be able to bike in the dark, therefore I had a few rides well past sunset for the first time ever. At the end of January I sold my MTB because I barely used it, especially since I got the cross bike. So now I have only two bikes again…

I started February with a small meeting in Bern at the International Space Science Institute, discussing the challenges in modelling massive stars. Unluckily around the same time I caught a quite bad cold, and I only recovered a week after coming home from Switzerland. (I felt so weak that I had to turn back from a group ride after 5 kilometres, which was pretty depressing after already not being on the bike for quite some time…). A week later (almost fully recovered by then) I went to the velodrome in Ghent with Willem (and the Belgian Rapha Cycling Club), which was a really fun two hours on the track with 40+ km/h. (Photo: Bert Van Lent – and I am on the far right.)

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I wish there was a velodrome in Leuven, it would make my winter cycling training so much easier (and more fun). I had to buy a pair of new wheels for my road bike, because the originals were getting dangerously worn (partly due to the rainy and foggy descents in the Pyrenees last summer where we probably eroded a half millimetre from our rims in two days), and this time I did not go for the usual Mavic choice (although I am mostly happy with those wheels too), but I ordered a wheel-set from a smaller British company: HUNT. I choose their Race Aero wheels (1420g, 28 mm deep, and 22 mm wide rims, £379), and I am fully satisfied with them so far. They are hand built, light, aero, and HUNT offers a 60 day ride and return period, so I can only recommend giving them a try. Should I need a new pair of wheels, I find it likely that I would buy from HUNT again. Thanks to the wider rim, I also switched to a slightly wider tire (moving from 23 mm to 25 mm), and I can definitely feel the difference in ride quality (smoothness) and while cornering. The first ride with the new wheels took me to the French-Belgian border to do a reconnaissance of one of the routes that I had previously prepared for the Squadra Tornado training weekend. That week was great in terms of cycling overall (425 km in 15.5 hours), I even managed one ride in shorts (with knee and arm warmers, but still). Just before the end of the month I also completed the first century of the year too.

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In March I started a big project that I always wanted to do; making my own sky atlas. The final push came when I was redoing a few figures about all the observations that had been made with the Mercator telescope since its inauguration (some of which I also compiled into a video), because I realised that I was already using a lot of the tools that would be needed to create a star atlas. Since this is a huge topic I want to write a separate blog entry about it (in the near future), but let me just say that I lost plenty of sleep time since the beginning of March to this project (but it has been always fun and I learned a lot while doing so). I was also a member of a PhD jury for the first time in my life, and I got to wear a fancy gown on the public defence of the candidate. I really liked that :)

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For the second half of the month we finally got a spell of nice spring weather, so I returned to the South for the second reconnaissance ride, which was the nicest ride of the season so far (in Belgium). Unluckily the weather for the Tornado outing itself turned out to be pretty rainy, and I also had to drive to Antwerp in the middle of the weekend for an evening, therefore I only made it to the ride on Friday, so at the end I was really happy that I did the recon rides of the two other days earlier. On the PS4 I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn, which seems fun for now (although slightly repetitive). Towards the end of the month I bought a new cycling GPS, the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt, which is much better than all the Garmins I had before, so I am very happy with the switch.

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Unluckily it turns out that my unit has some kind of a hardware issue that only appears around an altitude of 2000 metres (and manifests in huge spikes or a complete loss in elevation data), so when I did my first bike ride from the Observatory on La Palma I had to face some nasty surprises. Of course – being a data scientist nerd – I was not happy about that, but luckily the Wahoo support was very helpful (maybe partly because I provided a detailed, ~5000 character-long description of the issue), and a replacement unit is already on its way as we speak (and as long as I am not crossing the ~2000 metre line I have no issues, so I don’t have to go back to one of my Garmin units in the meantime). Speaking of La Palma: I had an observing run at the Mercator telescope starting on the 4th of April (and lasting 9 nights, bringing my totals there up to 128 nights), then I took a week of holidays on the island just to bike around. The last time I travelled with my bike was in 2013, and most likely this is the last year that I have the opportunity to go to the Canary Islands for work, so I though I had to do it once again. During the nights I spent most of my time working on the sky atlas (drawing the outlines of ~300 dark and bright nebulae by hand) in the control room, and I did a 1.5-2 hour ride from the Observatory before every night (except for a very cold Monday). I have never biked this much up on the mountain. The previous years during the observing runs I only rode the bike between the telescope and the place where we stay during the day, which only added up to 10.5 km (when I rode up to the telescope twice) a day. Now I have a licence so I always drove the car to the telescope which saved a lot of time and energy, therefore I could go for longer rides between starting the instrument calibrations (right after getting out of bed on the afternoon) and having dinner (right before the beginning of the worknight). The weather was also quite nice at 2000 metres. It was almost always sunny, and during the first days it was even so hot that I could just bike in shorts, but a week into my stay I made good use of all the knee/arm warmers and the wind jacket I had with me too…

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Normally I would take a taxi down to the hotel in Santa Cruz, but this time I made some arrangements so that I could just bike down, and a taxi would follow me with my bags :) That was quite cool (except for the part where a dog almost jumped at me while I was going down with 60 km/h), and I got an extremely helpful driver (via some local connections) who helped me with my bags a lot. I had six full days to bike, and I managed to bike on each day (which was a first again), although I had to cut a ride much shorter than planned, because I could not sleep anything the night before (thanks to my messed up internal clock). All in all I am happy with what I managed, especially the three longer rides. On the first day I biked around the Southern tip of the island before doing two 2nd category climbs, then after two days of fighting with insomnia I rode around the whole island (a really epic ride of 155 km with 3385 m of elevation gain), while on the last day of my holidays I biked up to the top of the island for the fifth time in my life, but for the first time without stopping.

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This climb – leading up to the highest paved point (the Roque de los Muchachos at 2426 metres ASL) of the Canary Islands – is a monster. It is 41.5 km long, it starts at a few metres above sea level and climbs at an average gradient of 6%, but since there is a short downhill/flat section after reaching 2300 metres for the first time, the actual average gradient for the uphill parts is 7% (both for the first ~33 km and the last 3.5 km). Long story short, simply going up and down involves 2750 metres of elevation gain… This specific ride will stay in my memory not only because I finally managed to get up there without stopping, but also because the temperature went from 23°C at sea level to 10°C in the cloud layer (staying between 800 and 1800 metres, but while climbing that was not too cold, even though I was wearing only in shorts), then back up to comfortable (quite warm) levels thanks to the strong sunshine above the clouds.

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This was all good until I had to go downhill though the cloud layer, because by that time the clouds became even thicker, so the visibility dropped to ~25 metres, and the temperature to 8°C. This means that I had to descend for a half hour through this layer (and due to the low visibility I had to go relatively slow, so it took me much longer than usual to get down), and I only had an extra gilet with me against the wind, but no jacket or arm warmers against the cold (since although I checked out what the weather situation was at the telescopes before leaving, I did not think about the possibility of having colder temperatures in the cloud layer at lower altitudes – quite stupid of me now that I think of it). With windchill values between 6°C and 2°C that was not a pleasant half hour, and I was shaking slightly by the time I emerged from the cloud layer, but I survived, so it is OK :D In total I biked 783 km in 34.5 hours on La Palma (with an elevation gain of 18140 metres, which explains the horrible average speed).

That afternoon (after warming up in the shower) I even managed to walk down to the new beach which finally opened after years of political games over permits and who knows what else, but now it is open, and it is a great addition to the city (providing not only access to the sea, but also a nice, new view over the colourful houses of the historical seafront with the mountains in the background). Speaking of things other than biking, just after cycling down from the observatory after my observing run, I got to watch two easter processions across the city, and they were both quite an interesting sight. My favourite italian place is luckily still open, so I ate there basically every night (except for one evening when I was so tired/lazy that I just stayed in my room and made spaghetti while watching Netflix). Although I am not a frequent coffee-drinker, I had to check out a place that I had read about in the Guardian a few months ago (El Cafe de Don Manuel). It turnes out that the article was not lying, it is a cosy, calm spot inside a beautiful renovated courtyard with only a few tables, and besides the good coffee, they serve delicious cakes too (one afternoon I simply could not resist taking a second piece, it was so good).

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Flying home I got to sit on Business Class for the first time in my life (since for some reason when I booked my tickets to La Palma, this was the cheapest combination for these dates). It was a nice change to have legspace (and incredible amounts of it, especially from Madrid to Brussels) and proper meals, so I did not have to live on sandwiches and chocolates all day long. Of course if you think about it the price difference between business and economy tickets is basically more than what a (three) Michelin starred dinner costs (for two), so I would rather go for that and sit 5 hours without food and legspace if it was about my own hard-earned money. Ridiculous… (And then we are still not talking about First Class tickets on overseas trips.)

It was a bit of a shock to come back to the 7°C and rain, but hopefully from May the weather will finally turn a bit warmer. Besides work, I am also trying to put together a nice non-scientific CV for the corporate world, since soon I will start looking for a new job outside of academia, which will definitely bring some changes into my life.

Four planets and the Moon over the Mercator telescope

I am back on La Palma (again), supervising our Master students at the telescope (again). Although I did not bring the ‘big guns’ from my photo gear this time, I still have my small camera with me. The first night of this observing run was my 100th night at the Mercator telescope :) To celebrate this, here is a picture I took of the beautiful planetary conjunction before Sunrise on the morning of the 11th with my FUJIFILM X100S camera (with an equivalent focal length of 35 mm) set at f/2.8, at ISO 800, and using an exposure time of 10 seconds.

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Although the Moon looks full, it is just a thin crescent (which is better visible after clicking on the image), but the dark side is quite strongly lit by light reflected back from the Earth. This is called earthshine. (At the same moment, Earth looks almost full from the surface of the Moon, so there is a lot of Earthlight even on the dark parts.)

Summer observing run on La Palma

I am sitting at the airport of La Palma waiting for my hopefully not very delayed flight to Madrid (a bit of delay is ok, but I still want to make it home today), so I have a bit of time to post. I spent the previous almost two weeks (officially 10 nights) working at our Mercator Telescope, and as this time I did not come without my photography equipment, I also took a few nice pictures in my spare time. It has been so long since I took proper pictures here, that I finally had some new ideas and it did not feel like a burden to take photos. So please enjoy the following selection, and should these be not enough, head over to the full gallery on flickr.

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Flying to La Palma, if it’s not on a day when charters fly, you will most likely catch a connecting flight in Madrid. I like the colours of this airport a lot. then after landing on La Palma, it’s a one hour taxi ride up from sea level to 2145 meters to the Observatory. The amount of curves along the way is just crazy, so you should keep your eyes on the road…

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At the observatory astronomers stay at the residencia. It is basically a small hotel with cozy rooms that can be made totally dark even during daytime (which is pretty much the most important thing when you need to sleep during the day).

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This is the first time that I came here at the beginning of the summer, so I finally got to see the sea of yellow flowers on the mountain. Especially in very clear days (so, basically every day here), they are really beautiful against the deep blue backdrop of the sky.

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I made an improved version of my famous transparent dome photo, which took a lot of preparations, and running between the control room an the camera. You can read more about the process in my blog post for the old picture.

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I was lucky because Venus and Jupiter came unusually close to each other on the evening sky during my stay, so I had something special to put in the background of the telescope (or the building). Note our new simultaneous three channel (hence the three colours on its sides) photometer (MAIA) on the side of the telescope.

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I also got to see the laser of the WHT in action. This was actually already the second time that I saw it, but last October I had no camera with me to take pictures. Also, now I could put the Milky Way in the background :)

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When I said Venus and Jupiter had a pretty close conjunction, I meant they had an apparent distance less than the diameter of the Moon! It was an amazing visual sight.

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Then of course there is the famous caldera of the island, which is usually filled with a sea of clouds, but there are also a few rare days, when you can see down all the way to the bottom.

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On one of the last nights I had some fun with light-painting, writing the telescope’s name with a flashlight on a long-exposure image. BTW the rest of the scenery is lit by moonlight.

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Then on the last day, I could still catch our home galaxy rising behind the telescope building in the short dark time between sunset and moonrise.

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I will be back in October with the Master students as usual, but probably without photo-equipment. I have taken enough nice pictures for a while.

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All the things from September until January

After coming home from Italy, the PlayStation 4 took over the spot of my old and beloved PlayStation 3 in the living room (but we sold it for good money, so now someone else is still happy with it), and I enjoyed quite a few evenings playing with FIFA 15. (I also got Destiny for free, but I lost interest in that extremely quickly…) Since then, I won everything with Liverpool, playing maybe even better than they actually did last spring. And although I am a Liverpool supporter since something like 1998 (back then I really liked Owen on the World Cup, and as I figured he played for Liverpool, I chose them), this past season made me even pay for an official membership :) Then Suarez bit out a piece of our heart and left, but luckily the team is back in winning form after a miserable autumn by now, so all is good. I especially like Coutinho these days, but the team is filled with young talents, so the future seems bright. Anyway, probably none of you is interested in this, so…

In October I went to La Palma to be the support astronomer of our Master students at the Mercator Telescope. It’s not only a teaching duty for me, but something I really like to do. I have now 89 nights behind my back at this telescope, so I am sure I can say I am a Mercator-expert! Being at the telescope also meant playing a lot of Kerbal Space Program (if I had more time I would totally write another review of this game), and watching the LEGO movie again. (Everything is awesome!!!)

In the beginning of November we spent a long weekend in Spa, but not in the spa. We went hiking (Day 1 and Day 2) during the day through the beautiful forest and the swampy grasslands of the Fens, and then went for nice dinners (sushi, burgers, and local specialities) in the city on the evenings. It was a great weekend. And even though I accidentally booked the tickets to Interstellar also for the very same weekend, we got to see it at another time. And another one. What a great movie! Not much later we had a delicious brunch in Leuven at Zoff (which was still a present for my PhD). Then already almost in the middle of November we went to Villers-la-Ville to visit the ruin abbey, and since it was something like 20°C, we had a nice time walking around and taking pictures.

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In December – as usual – we went to Budapest. We finally managed to check out the restored Várkert Bazár, we had a very nice thunderstorm-lit dinner in Zona (and lots of kürtőskalács), and also spent some lazy days (filled with presents and eating) at my parents’.

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Then from the moment we arrived back to Belgium till the very end of January (except for New Year’s Eve, which we spent watching movies, and eating great Asian food and equally good unhealthy snacks), most of our evenings and weekends were devoted to Dragon Age: Inquisition. It was the PS4 game I bought especially because I thought Clio would maybe like watching it, while I was not even sure I would like it, but then, from the first moments until the end credits 95 hours later, we could barely stop playing with it (even Clio started her own story, but then she said watching it was better). It was the game of the year for me (and for other people too), no doubt. I even have a few videos on YouTube about killing the dragons! It was so good, that I almost forgot that we had also completed 50% of Far Cry 4 before that. But the other half is still waiting for me to finish…

In the meantime I also kept going to my Dutch classes, since even though I don’t really like spending my evenings there, it is very useful. On Level 3 I got 84%, and I can talk with Clio quite well in Dutch. (Her Hungarian is also getting better and better, especially given how much more difficult that is. She is surprisingly good!)

The post will be updated with pictures in 48 hours.

Good bye La Silla

I am officially done with the observing on La Silla. It was a nice experience, but 17 days in the night rhythm – working, or at least being awake during the night, and sleeping during the day – is really exhausting, so I am happy to go home now. At this moment I am staying at the ESO Guest House, with still two hours to go before I need to leave to the airport. I am already in the process of switching back to European time, which of course means that I slept miserably, and I was awake at completely unreasonable hours during the night… In total I managed to sleep something like 4 hours during the day before leaving La Silla, and another 4 hours during the night, so it is actually better than it feels. If everything goes according to the plan, then I should be home in 24 hours from now. As a good bye from Chile, here are three pictures from last week showing some nice lenticular clouds above the Andes.

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