Out in the Desert, Watching the Universe is a 24/7 Job

Out in the Desert, Watching the Universe is a 24/7 Job

(Photo: Kevin Lizarazo)

By Kayla McKiski

To be on the staff that operates the installation of 27 massive antenna dishes at the Very Large Array, one of the premier facilities for astronomical observation, all you need to be is a master problem solver with a willingness to work strange hours and live in the middle of nowhere.

Operators at the Very Large Array, or VLA, are responsible for ensuring that these multi-million dollar instruments are working at full capacity 24/7. Every minute without observation is a minute that valuable scientific data isn’t being collected.

“We normally require either a bachelor’s degree in either physics or astronomy with good knowledge of electronics,” said David Finley, the public information officer at the VLA. “An important skill is being able to troubleshoot.” Finley said. “There’s cryogenics, there’s mechanical stuff. We like that technical background.”

One telescope operator, Blythe Guvenen, 26, does not have a degree at all. He double majored in physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona, but dropped out. He then found himself working with public outreach at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, where he gained some telescope operating experience and even acting as a main technician-mechanic, learning as he went.

Wanting to step away from community relations and back into hard science, he applied for an operator position at the VLA and got it. Unlike Guvenen, other operators have a bachelor’s degree, but not necessarily in a science.

“The operators have a ton of different backgrounds,” Guvenen said. “One of them has a degree in broadcast journalism. We’re basically a pack of strays.”

“Nobody actually comes into the job with a skillset to operate a radio telescope, that’s a very specific and special background to have,” Guvenen said. “We just look for people who can fit the lifestyle—so people who don’t mind working strange hours and long days.”

Each 24 hours is broken into three shifts spent in a room with at least 10 screens displaying different information. The operators must make sure that each step of the data-collecting process is going smoothly—everything from making sure the antennas are precisely positioned to assembling the collected information do the image of a planet, star or galaxy can be created.

“We have over 20 telescopes out there and in each telescope there are about 400 things that could go wrong,” David Finley, the public information officer at the VLA, said. “An important skill is being able to troubleshoot.”

They are the overseers and sometimes the handymen. Not only do the operators need to recognize what’s wrong, but they need to be knowledgeable enough to know who to call to fix it, if they can’t.

“It’s seven hours of boredom and one hour of sheer terror.” Guvenen said with a laugh, recalling a time when a cooling issue nearly shut down operations for the day. After a quick “guess and check,” he figured out that their HVAC friends were needed to solve the problem.

Working solo and having astronomers across the globe rely on you may be extraordinarily high pressure, but it does have its perks.

Through large glass window panes, Guvenen sees the giant white telescopes standing against a mountainous backdrop and below an open sky. At night, he sees the dark blue sky above the antennas speckled with brilliant white lights, a constellation lover’s dream.

“It’s just me, the telescope and the stars,” Guvenen said. “I definitely have the best view in the house.”

(Photo: Kevin Lizarazo)

By Kayla McKiski

To be on the staff that operates the installation of 27 massive antenna dishes at the Very Large Array, one of the premier facilities for astronomical observation, all you need to be is a master problem solver with a willingness to work strange hours and live in the middle of nowhere.

Operators at the Very Large Array, or VLA, are responsible for ensuring that these multi-million dollar instruments are working at full capacity 24/7. Every minute without observation is a minute that valuable scientific data isn’t being collected.

“We normally require either a bachelor’s degree in either physics or astronomy with good knowledge of electronics,” said David Finley, the public information officer at the VLA. “An important skill is being able to troubleshoot.” Finley said. “There’s cryogenics, there’s mechanical stuff. We like that technical background.”

One telescope operator, Blythe Guvenen, 26, does not have a degree at all. He double majored in physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona, but dropped out. He then found himself working with public outreach at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, where he gained some telescope operating experience and even acting as a main technician-mechanic, learning as he went.

Wanting to step away from community relations and back into hard science, he applied for an operator position at the VLA and got it. Unlike Guvenen, other operators have a bachelor’s degree, but not necessarily in a science.

“The operators have a ton of different backgrounds,” Guvenen said. “One of them has a degree in broadcast journalism. We’re basically a pack of strays.”

“Nobody actually comes into the job with a skillset to operate a radio telescope, that’s a very specific and special background to have,” Guvenen said. “We just look for people who can fit the lifestyle—so people who don’t mind working strange hours and long days.”

Each 24 hours is broken into three shifts spent in a room with at least 10 screens displaying different information. The operators must make sure that each step of the data-collecting process is going smoothly—everything from making sure the antennas are precisely positioned to assembling the collected information do the image of a planet, star or galaxy can be created.

“We have over 20 telescopes out there and in each telescope there are about 400 things that could go wrong,” David Finley, the public information officer at the VLA, said. “An important skill is being able to troubleshoot.”

They are the overseers and sometimes the handymen. Not only do the operators need to recognize what’s wrong, but they need to be knowledgeable enough to know who to call to fix it, if they can’t.

“It’s seven hours of boredom and one hour of sheer terror.” Guvenen said with a laugh, recalling a time when a cooling issue nearly shut down operations for the day. After a quick “guess and check,” he figured out that their HVAC friends were needed to solve the problem.

Working solo and having astronomers across the globe rely on you may be extraordinarily high pressure, but it does have its perks.

Through large glass window panes, Guvenen sees the giant white telescopes standing against a mountainous backdrop and below an open sky. At night, he sees the dark blue sky above the antennas speckled with brilliant white lights, a constellation lover’s dream.

“It’s just me, the telescope and the stars,” Guvenen said. “I definitely have the best view in the house.”