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.

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A Very Unstable Day

The ground beneath us is one constant in life you just expect to never change. Solid and unyielding, we build our lives upon the firm foundations of the Earth. When this constant betrays us it is truly disconcerting. The world loses some of its comforting stability.

Last Friday was a day when our islands were reminded of the instability of our world in a rather abrupt fashion.

USGS Earthquake Map for 1May2018
USGS Earthquake Map for May 6, 2018
It was clear weeks ago that the volcano was restless. volcanophiles like myself found ourselves checking the reports and charts daily. The deformation graphs are a good indication of what is going on inside the volcano.

The tiltmeters indicated that pressure in the caldera and Puʻu Oʻo had been building steadily. At the same time the activity in the 61g lava had been waning. Where was the magma going?

While speculation was rife, no one really knew what was coming. Three decades of eruptions from Puʻu Oʻo has become somewhat routine. People forget that Kilauea can be, and usually is much more unpredictable. That destruction can appear anywhere on her flanks.

USGS Leilani Eruption, 5 May, 2018
Lava emerges from a fissure in the Leilani Estates subdivision on May 5th, 2018, photo from the USGS
The first lava surfaced Thursday afternoon in the neighborhood of Leilani Estates. The observatory staff had gathered to celebrate a pau hana that afternoon, an early Cinco De Mayo celebration with Mexican food. Many of us ate our tacos and quesadillas in the conference room, where the large screen was showing drone video of the first fissures.

We worried about the homes in the neighborhood and the people we knew who lived in the area. We compared notes, recalling who lived exactly where, fearing the lava flows would quickly spread. This was looking like a worst case scenario, a repeat of 1955 with more people and homes in the way.

Despite the outbreaks of lava in the rift zone the previous afternoon, we expected a routine Friday atop Mauna Kea. I had a list of tasks to complete… Inspect the K1 azimuth wrap, drill some anchor points to allow installation of the new ice monitor receiver on the roof, look for some spare parts for an encoder.

It should be an easy day on the summit… It was not.

Friday became a day I will remember for a long time to come.

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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.

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Laser Gallery

Dual Laser Milky Way Photo Op

The island is home to a vibrant community of photographers, a mix of professionals and serious amateurs. There is one set of photos everyone, and I do mean everyone wants… Dual lasers on the Milky Way.

Dual Lasers on the Galactic Center
Both Keck lasers aimed at the center of the Milky Way galaxy
Just occasionally both of the keck telescopes, and both lasers, are focused on the center of the galaxy, both stabbing right at the heart of the Milky Way.

Opportunities to see and photograph this are few, and occur strictly during the summer months of June to August, when the Milky Way is high overhead. furthermore, these opportunities occur only when Andre Ghez and her UCLA Galactic Center Group have both telescopes scheduled.

July 25th was such a night, a good opportunity to get both lasers. Andrea’s group has the first half of the night, turning over the ‘scopes to other astronomers just after midnight. Actually there were a few nights this particular week, we just chose the 25th. After this galactic center season is over, at least until next year.

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Shooting Sidereal Timelapse

Another night on the summit for photography, another night of dual lasers working the sky above the Keck telescopes.

Sidereal Drive Platform
A Celestron telescope drive configured as a sidereal rate tracking camera platform
I have never really had a chance to properly use the old Celestron mount for photography after finishing it a few months back. Short tests, but nothing properly following the sky for hours on end as the equipment was meant to do.

It works, and it works very well indeed.

The video below contains 2.5 hours of time-lapse at 15 second for each exposure for 557 frames. Put that together and render at 24fps and you have the following result…

Service Call

It does not happen very often, but it does happen. Driving up to the summit in the night to fix the telescope. As an operations engineer it is part of the job, but I can think of only a handful of times in my decade on the summit I have actually done it.

The motor controllers for the Keck 2 top shutter
The motor controllers for the Keck 2 top shutter
Considering it takes the better part of two hours to get to the summit there is no point in trying unless the issue occurs early. You have to consider the issue… Can you fix it in the middle of the night? Will there be any night left once you fix it? Do you just call the night and head up the next day with a full crew and a good night’s rest to fix it properly?

This particular problem was discovered first thing upon opening. Well? Lack of opening for the night. The top shutter on Keck 2 would not move, fault lights all over the place. Hard to look at the sky with the top shutter closed. I worked the issue over the phone for a while with Nick as far as we could.

The conclusion? I would have to work the problem in person to fix it, I have to go up.

Can I fix this? Probably. I found myself leaving the house before 9pm for a run to the summit.

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4WD and Washboard on Mauna Kea

It has long been policy on the Mauna Kea summit road to use four wheel drive while ascending the mountain. One of the reasons given is to slow the formation of washboard, the annoying ripples that inevitably form on gravel roads.

Convoy
A convoy of observatory vehicles heads up the summit access road
On Mauna Kea an oft cited mantra is that the use of four wheel drive when ascending the mountain reduces the formation of washboard. I have always suspected this is a mountain myth with no substance. Where does this belief come from? Is there any real information on this?

The Manuals

There are a great many references that detail the practical details of maintaining gravel roads. Generations of highway engineers have spent a lot of time studying and writing about how to best maintain gravel roads at the least cost.

Washboard
Typical washboard on the Mauna Kea access road
The US Department of Transportation highway Administration has published a lengthy guide to the problems and solutions of gravel roads. This guide dedicates a dozen pages to the issue of corrugation or washboarding. While multiple factors in the formation and prevention of washboarding are discussed there is no mention of 4WD vehicles being a factor.

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Observatory Still Life Gallery

Often you just need to take note of the small scenes that make up daily life. Over the years I have made an effort to photograph these scenes, there is so much richness in our everyday existence that too many do not notice…