Seeing Stars: A Telescope Operator's Night Michael Alegria is one of only three people who know how to operate the Multiple Mirror Telescope in Arizona. Though he's not an astronomer — he's an engineer — Alegria says he's loved astronomy ever since he took apart his first telescope as a kid to see how it worked.
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Seeing Stars: A Telescope Operator's Night

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Seeing Stars: A Telescope Operator's Night

Seeing Stars: A Telescope Operator's Night

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The textbook image of an astronomer at work is someone in a white lab coat on top of a freezing mountain peering into an enormous telescope. Except for the mountain, that image is a century out of date. The huge telescopes on Earth today are laden with such complex instruments that only a handful of people are trained to work them.

As part of our series You Do What? NPR's Ted Robbins introduces us to a telescope operator.

Mr. MICHAEL ALEGRIA (Telescope Operator, MMT Observatory): My name is Michael Alegria. I work for the MMT Observatory, and we're on the summit of Mount Hopkins in Amado, Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: MMT stands for Multiple Mirror Telescope, though today it uses one large mirror. Michael Alegria is one of three people who know how to operate it. He's not an astronomer. He's an engineer.

Mr. ALEGRIA: I make sure the telescope is pointed where it needs to be pointed, the instrument is doing what it's supposed to be doing and everything else associated with that.

ROBBINS: The simplest part of Alegria's workday or rather night comes shortly after he starts, around four in the afternoon. He uses a hand winch to roll up the shade covering the six-and-a-half-meter telescope mirror. Then the 30-ton observatory doors roll silently aside, opening the dome to the sky hours before dark so the temperature outside matches the temperature inside.

Mr. ALEGRIA: With a piece of glass this big, if you have temperature differences between the night air and the glass, it distorts the scene.

ROBBINS: While the mirror cools, Alegria climbs down the stairs into the telescope's control room, where he'll spend the night. The room is about 10 feet wide and 50 feet long. One side is completely filled with computer monitors. About half are for the astronomers. The other half are for Alegria.

Mr. ALEGRIA: I monitor I have 48 different windows that I keep track of.

ROBBINS: Tonight, the team is testing a new laser pointer star, a laser beam shooting into the sky, which helps the telescope focus on distant objects.

Mr. ALEGRIA: It's doing something. It's doing something right.

ROBBINS: Once the bugs are worked out, astronomer Michael Hart and his team from the University of Arizona sit next to Alegria.

Mr. MICHAEL HART (Astronomer, MMT Observatory): (Unintelligible).

ROBBINS: Over and over, some software glitch seems to be stopping things. To an observer, that seems like a recipe for boredom, but not to Mike Alegria.

Mr. ALEGRIA: Even if it's the same program, you've got different targets. So the telescope may behave a little bit differently. The weather is always different.

ROBBINS: He's been a telescope operator here eight years, four years after he started work at the MMT as a student. Again, Mike Alegria is not an astronomer, but he says he's loved astronomy ever since his mother gave him a telescope when he was a kid.

Mr. ALEGRIA: Of course, I tore it apart to see how it worked and could never get it properly aligned again.

ROBBINS: But that was your first clue that you were going to be an operator, not an astronomer.

Mr. ALEGRIA: Right.

ROBBINS: Now, astronomers like Michael Hart couldn't get along without Mike Alegria's engineering ability.

Mr. HART: Mike is my hero. Mike makes this whole telescope operate single-handedly.

ROBBINS: You're serious.

Mr. HART: Yeah, I'm serious. I mean, we would not be here conducting these experiments if Mike were not over here to support us.

ROBBINS: Astronomers at the MMT have made major finds: new black holes, dwarf galaxies, planets outside our solar system, even last year confirming the presence of water on the moon. Mike Alegria says he's not looking for any credit. He just enjoys being part of the process and witnessing the discoveries.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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