NOAO < ASTRONOMERS < STAFFDIR < Staff Profile: J. Rajagopal

Conversation with Jayadev Rajagopal (NOAO Scientist)

So how did you come to be an astronomer, Jayadev?

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, I admit that I always wanted to do astronomy. Looking at the night sky for hours, member of the neighborhood amateur astronomers club, reading pop astronomy books—I did all that stuff when I was a kid. I can’t recall any one thing that set me off. It was just an overall awe with the immense scale of things.

Then I got side-tracked and got a degree in mechanical engineering, which is a more practical thing to have when growing up in India. I enjoyed that too. I was the stereotypical car, plane, train and “all things mechanical” type. I later went back to attempt an astronomy degree. Luckily, I met up with some inspirational teachers and peers at my grad school (the Raman Institute in Bangalore India) and other places along the way.

What do you do at NOAO?

My job includes a broad range of activities. I support the infrared instrumentation at the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope, both the infrared imager SPARTAN and the OSIRIS spectrograph. I am currently spending most of my time commissioning SPARTAN, which is a new instrument. I also support US Gemini observers as the contact scientist for TReCs, the mid-infrared imager and spectrometer on Gemini South here in Chile. As part of that, I help US astronomers plan their observing proposals, as well as their actual observations if they are awarded time with TReCs. Since Gemini is operated mostly in queue mode, these observations have to be specified in detail well before the observations are made.

As part of my job supporting US Gemini observers, I keep up with progress on the new, exciting Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics (MCAO) capability at Gemini, which is expected to be commissioned in early 2010. At that point, NOAO will need to support US observers who want to use the system, so I am learning about this complex beast by attending regular informal sessions with the AO group.

What are you currently passionate about?

My passion has been, and continues to be, very high resolution imaging techniques and their application to probing the formation and evolution of stars. The things I study include the dust and winds of massive evolved stars. I am also studying the circumbinary dust disk around a very evolved low mass star. I got into interferometry from my early days at grad school, because I was keen on both the technical challenges and the insight into the physics of coherence it involves. While we do not currently have any interferometry development going on at NOAO, we are deeply involved with AO, and AO is pretty much the same thing in a different guise. So I keenly follow the progress of the SOAR Adaptive optics Module (SAM), the AO system that is coming online this year at SOAR, and plan on being involved with its commissioning process.

What skills do you find are important in doing your job?

The one skill that I find helps the most is having an eclectic interest in (and some knowledge of) a lot of different things, all of which I find is fun to do. And as in any other job, I guess, you need to work well with people and keep trying to learn all the time.

Why did you decide to work at NOAO? What do you like about your job?

To be honest, I ended up working for NOAO because my wife, Susan Ridgway, got a job here as an astronomer. But having said that, I like working here a lot. The bottom line seems to be the people I work with. They are a fun group and good at what they do. And our job mostly is about helping and astronomers to do their research, and doing some interesting research of one’s own, and all this while hanging around cool new (and some classic!) instrumentation. Not a bad job description considering that I got into this because I like astronomy.

What do you think about working and living in La Serena?

It helps a lot that Susan and I work at the same place while trying our best to raise a (currently) 3 year old son. We live on the Recinto, a step away from work, which does have its advantages. La Serena can get a little quiet at times and choices for eating out may be limited, but it is a pretty town and it’s right on the beach, which we like a lot, and Tololo is a great site.