As you probably realised, my trip to Hawaii was more or less a complete washout. Of the four nights we had on the telescope, we made it to the summit for one and a half of them. The last night was the most depressing, when we sat there for hours waiting for fog to clear only for it to start snowing heavily. Once that happens, you need a team with shovels to be able to open up and it’s time to head down. We did manage to get about an hour’s data on the third night, for a program which didn’t need as good conditions as mine did, providing data on targets which will be viewed by the new Herschel telescope.
Herschel doesn’t need to worry about snowstorms, as it’s ESA’s new space telescope. With a 3.5m mirror, it will be the largest telescope ever to fly. Designed to work in the far-IR – a region of the spectrum that hasn’t been covered by recent missions – it should produce spectacular views of the coolest bits of the Universe, from nearby star formation to the most distant galaxies. In order to make sense of the results expected when it launches later this year, scientists are currently carrying out large surveys with existing ground based telescopes. These will be used to calibrate and to help interpret Herschel’s results – which will no doubt send scientists scurrying back to Mauna Kea. If it isn’t snowing, that is.