Surviving Rejection and the Thrill of Discovery in the Outer Solar System
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
As I look back on 35 years as a professional astronomer, I’ve come to recognize one of the most important personal attributes for success in astronomy is an ability to survive disappointment and rejection over and over again. Here, I describe my experiences.
Time on a big telescope is essential for me to do my research, but unfortunately there are many more requests for nights on a big telescope than there are available nights. So, how do the people that run an observatory figure out which astronomers get time? Sell lottery tickets? Make you spin star dust into gold? No, it’s much worse! If I want telescope time, I’ll spend weeks doing calculations, writing, and word-smithing a detailed description of my project and explaining why its top-notch science. In the words of my profession, I write a proposal for telescope time. Next, I submit my proposal to a panel of really mean, short, chubby, bald creatures dragging maces about. You know, trolls. Ok, I admit they’re trolls only when they decide not to give me time, and brilliant and insightful colleagues when they decide to give me time. Seriously, their job is really difficult. They’re charged with finding the proposals with the best ideas and the fewest flaws. Because telescope time is so valuable, it’s a ruthless process where only the best science gets time. For some of the most sought-after facilities, my chances of getting time can be as low as one in ten. That means that I face a rejection rate as large as ninety percent!
Lowell Discovery Telescope
Let’s say that I do get the blessings of my esteemed colleagues and they award me with time for my project; the next hurdle is weather. Obviously, if there are heavy clouds, rain, or snow you can’t observe anything. In order to do my science, I need a perfectly clear sky. Even in a dry climate like Arizona, my chances of getting a clear sky are only one in three. That means there is about a sixty-six percent chance for disappointment any given night of my telescope run. Other things can stop me from observing too. For example, moisture is detrimental to the mirror and electronics of a telescope, and so nights with very high humidity can keep me from observing. It’s really frustrating to look up on a perfectly clear night, and not be able to use the telescope because the humidity is over ninety percent. So, what happens if weather keeps me from observing? I grumble a lot all the way home because there are no do overs. Remember, it’s competitive to get time and every night for the next six months to a year is booked up. I lose the time and the money I spent to get to the observatory. In six months to a year, I get to start all over and try again to sneak by the trolls.
Lowell Discovery Telescope in Action.
Why trudge through all this hassle over and over again? Well for a kid that grew up in a working-class neighborhood and was educated by public schools, it’s a real thrill to use big telescopes. These state-of-the-art facilities are worth between $50 million to $100 million dollars and cost as much as a dollar per second to operate. Every night I’m on a big telescope, I stand at the base of the observatory, which is perched high on the mountain top, and look out in wonder as the sun drops below the curve of the earth and the night sky fills with stars. As I watch, I remind myself that a panel of my peers decided my project was deemed to be among the most scientifically significant projects that they reviewed and that they granted me access to this highly valuable resource. It’s my responsibility to make the most of this rare opportunity. I’m full of optimism that the long night ahead will lead to a significant discovery.
Early in my career, my colleague, Bill Romanishin, and I were observing the small, icy objects that form a ring around the Solar System. If you look at the black and white image shown here, you can see what one of these objects looked like to us after it was collected by the telescope and then projected onto our computer screen. Since the object is relatively small and distant, its image is faint. You can locate the object we were observing by looking for the black splotch between the two black lines. The other black splotches in the image are background stars and galaxies. After many nights and over many years of collecting these kinds of images and analyzing them, we were the first to find that these objects were different from all the other objects in the
outer Solar System. We found they were all
extraordinarily red in color. That result was of sufficient significance that the highly prestigious journal NATURE published our findings in the spring of 2000. Another article in the same issue of NATURE described our result to non-astronomers and was entitled “The Ragged Red Edge” of the Solar System. The diagram in this article illustrates the location of the ragged red edge relative to the orbit of Neptune. We would wait almost 20 years for a NASA spacecraft to take an up-close image of one of these red objects. See the New Horizons spacecraft image of Arrokoth below.
Today, we know these red objects are the most primitive objects in the Solar System. As such, they likely hold clues to the earliest history of our Solar System. Their red color is likely the result of radiation pounding their surfaces. No one knows what chemical compounds nature cooked up on their surfaces. Could the surfaces of these objects hold clues to the origin of life chemistry on Earth or maybe even new compounds important to medicine or technology? For me, I continue to write up proposals for time on big telescopes to try and figure out what makes up at least some of the material on these primitive objects. The battle with the trolls and mother nature never ends, and for that I am eternally grateful!