Keep it Running

Some equipment around the observatory is thirty or more years old. As you would expect, keeping it running can be a challenge.

A redesigned small signal PCB for an Inland Motor FCU-100-30 amplifier power supply
A redesigned small signal PCB for an Inland Motor FCU-100-30 amplifier power supply

There are two ways of dealing with this old equipment… Replacing it with something new is the preferred way. When it becomes difficult to locate spare parts, when it breaks down too often, just replace it with new gear. For much of the equipment this is the usual answer and is often a major part of the job.

Some equipment is not so easily replaced. When replacement would require wholesale redesign of a system it becomes more of a challenge. Sometimes the only choice is to keep that old gear running.

This is the case with our servo amplifiers. Twelve amplifiers supply the power that drives the telescope, one amplifier for each motor. Eight amplifiers and motors drive azimuth, four drive elevation. Three hundred and seventy tons moved by twelve relatively small DC motors. While much of the telescope control system was recently replaced, it was decided to keep the old servo amplifiers.

You might notice that these servo amplifiers are just a wee bit critical.

Continue reading “Keep it Running”

Fixing the Boat

There is always something broken. It is just a rule on boats. Usually is is more than one thing, you have a list. Just so long as nothing on the list is truly critical.

Battery circuits on the forward engine room bulkhead of a Nordic Tug ‘42
Battery circuits on the forward engine room bulkhead of a Nordic Tug ‘42
Our journey south along the Inside Passage has been documented by adding things to the list, and crossing a few off as they get fixed. Washdown pump not working? Bad crimp in the power connection. The defrost vents on the bridge… Fixed. The anchor light atop the mast? Fixed… That took some work and dismantling half the ceiling. Door latch on a galley cabinet… Fixed.

Still, the list does not seem to get any shorter.

Nothing really critical… Until we noticed the batteries were not charging.

Hmmm… That might be a problem.

I spend a few minutes poking about in the engine room. The battery circuits are fairly simple, everything is just bolted to the forward bulkhead and fairly easy to get at. There is some complication in that we also have a battery charger that runs off AC power, that adds a few more wires, circuit breakers, and other electrical boxes to the setup.

Yeah… The alternator is dead. It is putting out 2.9 volts, not 12 to 13 volts..

Hmmm… That is a problem.

Fortunately we can charge our batteries. We have to run the generator and use the battery charger. We can keep cruising, with no redundancy. Lose the gen-set or the battery charger and we will soon be dead in the water when the batteries give out.

Of course this happens in the middle of a rather large bit of wilderness, a long ways from any substantial port that would have the needed parts.

So we run the gen-set for a few hours each morning, and a few hours each evening charging the batteries. The nights are punctuated by getting up to check the battery voltages, on the panel just outside my cabin door.

Those few days of cruising allow us to get to Shearwater. This little port serves the cruisers coming up from Vancouver and transiting the Inside Passage. Shearwater offers a fairly good marine supply house and a small boatyard.

Alternator on the Cummins diesel engine of the Nordic Quest
Alternator on the Cummins diesel engine of the Nordic Quest
Of course they do not have an alternator for a Cummins diesel in stock. They can however fly one in the next day from Vancouver. Just $400 for the alternator and another $90 to have it couriered to the airport. The final bill is $515… Ouch. Only somewhat softened by the conversion rate to $US.

We spend the night in a very pretty little cove a few miles from Shearwater. In no hurry to run back to dock I take a couple hours to kayak around a saltwater lagoon playing tag with a family of otters. One nice result of the breakdown.

At 1:30pm the water taxi arrives from Bella-Bella with our alternator aboard. Good, this will take 20 minutes… Not.

A broken 1/2″ ratchet… Run up to the marine supply for a 1/2″ breaker bar. $20 later we can get the serpentine belt off.

We do not have a socket big enough to get the pulley off the old alternator. Run up to the boatyard where the mechanic quickly swaps the pulleys with an air ratchet. We slide him enough loonies for a round of beer.

Done. The batteries are now charging! We head south towards Queen Charlotte and a open ocean crossing with all systems good to go. Everything critical at least.

When the Ground Trembles

Earthquakes have been a hot subject over the last couple months around here.

A seismic sensor made from three Honeywell QA-1400 accelerometers
A seismic sensor made from three Honeywell QA-1400 accelerometers
We live on an island that regularly shakes a bit, the consequence of living with active volcanoes. Obviously this has implications for the great telescopes atop Mauna Kea, every once in a while we experience an earthquake with the potential to cause damage.

The ongoing collapse of the summit caldera on Kilauea has been generating a daily five point something earthquake. While not powerful enough to damage the facility, these events do show up in the data each night, bumping the telescope, disturbing the tracking, and occasionally ruining an exposure.

USGS Earthquake Map for May 6, 2018
USGS Earthquake Map for May 6, 2018
Along with at least one strong earthquake, there are well over five hundred small quakes occurring daily as the eruption continues and Kilauea Caldera continues to subside.

Continue reading “When the Ground Trembles”

Midnight Run

The phone rang just as I was going to bed.

This phone call had a number I knew all too well, even without the caller ID showing the name… K1 Remote Operations. A this time of night it would be a problem, a serious problem. This particular problem would have me on the road back to the summit an hour later.

Keck at Night
Looking towards the Keck 2 dome on a moonlit night
Midnight runs to the summit are not common, but they do occur in my life. Usually we can work remotely, the night attendant serving as our remote eyes and hands. Just press the right button, flip the correct switch, done. Not this time. We tried, for over an hour we tried.

I really did not want to head back up. I had just gotten down a few hours ago, having spent the day on the summit working on the usual long list of things that need to get done. Days on the summit, in the thin air of nearly 14,000ft elevation are physically draining.

The irony of this malfunction is that I had seen it before. The dome had tripped out inexplicably on previous occasions. The problem would occur then disappear. Once it vanished you could not troubleshoot it. Unlike most of our other systems there are no logs from the shutter drive, nothing records what was going wrong.

The Friday before this it had happened to me again. But this time was different, I had a maintenance computer attached to the PLC serial port. This time I saw the error, something in the code labeled speed mismatch. No idea what this was, or how it worked. Again the error disappeared, and I could not troubleshoot further as the weather was getting worse. No opening the shutters again.

Continue reading “Midnight Run”

Captian Marvel

The Keck domes can be controlled three ways… From a set of manual controls on a panel at the base of the dome, via computer control when observing, and from a radio controller that you can use from anyplace in the dome. This radio controller has long been called Capt. Marvel around Keck, the original versions looked like a prop from a 1930’s sci-fi serial movie.

The dome radio controller, called Capt. Marvel
The dome radio controller, called Capt. Marvel
The radio controller is actually a crane controller, a standard unit you can buy that can safely control large machinery, including enormous factory or dockyard cranes. Being a standard unit it has a number of safety and security features built-in… Fail-safe operation, coded communications, and more insure reliable operation.

The unit is standard, the panel is custom. When buying the transmitter you need to specify the front panel layout including the switches and labels for your application. Thus our transmitter has a panel arranged to our specification with switches for dome rotation and opening the shutters. In the middle is a bright red-emergency stop switch to insure you can immediately stop everything if something goes wrong.

Continue reading “Captian Marvel”

A Better Solar Water Heater Electric Back-Up Timer

Another little problem around the house that can use a little creative circuitry to make it better. Do I really have to do it? No. I do it because I can, and because it is fun!

Solar Water Heater Back-Up Timer
A hot water heater timer setup for a solar water heater.
This time it is the electric back up heater for my solar hot water heater.

In Waikoloa solar hot water is an obvious addition to the house, we had it installed within a couple months of moving in. Considering electric power is about $0.40/kWh on the island, and tropical sunlight is quite intense, the use of solar to heat our water has been good money saving move… Long, hot showers with no guilt!

Once or twice a year we will get a period of heavy clouds and the water temperatures will fall to the point we need to turn on the electric back-up heating element in order to have that hot shower. Like most solar setups the storage tank has a electric element that will heat the water when needed.

Continue reading “A Better Solar Water Heater Electric Back-Up Timer”

Flasher Fun

With the Keck Observatory open house approaching I am helping get one of the most popular activities ready. At the last two open houses we have made flasher pins, we will do so again this year.

Flasher Pin
A simple electronics project… The Flasher Pin
Flashers? These are a simple circuit built on a PCB that flashes a pair of LED’s. Nothing serious, just a bit of electronics fun. The activity allows folks to learn a little electronics and soldering.

The PCB is configured as a pin or badge, with a brooch pin soldered to the back that also serves as a switch to turn on the LED’s.

The original design came from John Maute at SAO. The circuit is based around the venerable LM555 timer IC configured as an astable multivibrator. The LM555 timing circuit is simple enough to solder together in a few minutes, complex enough to look cool and provide a real introduction to an electronic circuit.

Continue reading “Flasher Fun”

Do you own what you buy?

In this ever complex world in which we live the rules are always changing, and usually getting more complex. A modern, information society has many rules that govern who owns what. Copy a photograph from the web and you are probably breaking the laws concerning copyrights. There is a complex and sometimes contradictory set of laws that governs all manner of ownership in this technological age.

Hay Baler Engine
The engine on a hay baler offers a view of mechanical paraphernalia
Do you know the rules?

Buy a CD with your favorite tunes… Can you copy the tracks onto your phone? Can you create a video with the music and post it to YouTube? What about that expensive photo software package? Can you put it on your laptop and desktop? The rules are often complex, and often the answer is not clear cut.

Increasingly we do not actually own what we buy. At least that is what many corporations will tell us.

You would think that the answer is easier if the thing we are talking about is a physical object. If you buy a car, can you re-paint it, install a new stereo, or ignition system. Of course you can do that. Can you? Sometimes the answer is no.

Increasingly corporations attempt to maintain control of a product after the sale. They use many tools to do this. One is intellectual property, copyrights and copy protection on the software that is now embedded into many of the things we buy.

Continue reading “Do you own what you buy?”

Perfboard

I was looking at some photos and realizing how much perfboard I have used in recent years. I routinely find myself building small circuits, and that process almost always begins with grabbing a bit of perfboard from the supply stash.

Perfboard Construction
Hand wired point-to-point wiring on perfboard
Perfboard is the basis of point-to-point wiring and has been around since well before I started in electronics as a young teenager. It is generally a small circuit board with holes drilled in a 0.1″ grid.

The holes are usually about 0.042″ and will accommodate a wide range of electronic components without modification. Cheap perfboard will have no copper pads or traces, good perfboard will have a pattern of copper traces and pads to which you can solder your components. Better yet is perfboard with plated-thru holes and pads on both sides.

Continue reading “Perfboard”

GenPIC Second Code Release

A minor code revision as I slowly get everything working properly. I am adding new modules as I need them for other projects.

GenPIC Processor
The microprocessor on a GenPIC PCB assembly
The latest GenPIC deployed will be a coolant valve controller that allows remote control of some glycol valves in the AO bench. It is a pretty simple device, just four relays with some automatic timing rules and a serial control interface.

In the process I added support for the service connectors including parallel and simple serial modules to the GenPIC code base, may as well release it. Thus you get code release 0.2…

GenPIC Code 0.2

Along with the new modules I removed the copyright notices that I had left in the code, replacing them with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-SA 4.0) license, just something I overlooked when releasing everything as open source.

Next up will probably be SD card support, I have a project that needs to be finished requiring some reasonable data storage. Just ordered a few micro-SD card breakout boards from SparkFun