A Snow Week

With a decent snowfall atop Mauna Kea my week was one of snow, and more snow. It was a week of problems and beauty.

The snow started falling on the 10th, a blanket of white covering the mauna. As the observatory crews pulled out and the road was closed we watched the storm on the webcams. While it snowed on the summit near record rains and flooding hit Hilo along with much of the windward side.

Dawn over Mauna Kea as seen from Saddle Road
Dawn over Mauna Kea as seen from Saddle Road

While a few guys from our summit crew made short visits to check on things, for the most part work on the summit was paused through the weekend, conditions inoperable.

It was not until Tuesday that the snowplows cleared the snowdrifts and access was partially restored. With delayed tasks to do I drove up that morning into a spectacular dawn over the mauna.

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An Open Letter from the Observatories of Mauna Kea

The observatories that call Mauna Kea home have written an open letter to the community expressing our position on the ongoing events in our local community…

Aloha to our scientific colleagues around the world,

On behalf of the more than 500 people employed by the Maunakea Observatories, we offer a perspective about the Maunakea situation with the sincere hope that our words encourage greater understanding of the complex circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Staff members of the Maunakea Observatories, many of whom are born and raised in Hawaiʻi, feel a deep and personal connection to the special people and place of our Hawai‘i Island home. We live and work together in a community where our success is measured by the quality of our relationships, one of the paramount reasons life here is enriching, rewarding and inspiring. Even in conflict, our differences don’t define us; our humble, reverent appreciation of our community does. The diverse mix of scientists, technicians, engineers, administrators, and students of the Maunakea Observatories continually seek a path forward that strengthens the future of our island community. Our local staff, family members, and friends have a wide range of views and strong feelings about the events that surround us. We deeply respect all these viewpoints, which come from our family and friends, and we both believe and champion their right to express them.

In our community, we are weathering the pain of rifts in these carefully tended relationships that will take mutual respect and time to heal. We know these challenges across our island home have gained attention with our peers in the international astronomy community. We understand your expressed concerns. We also urge your appreciation of the nuances and complexity of the issues we now face.

The future of Maunakea astronomy will be defined primarily by the diverse people of Hawaiʻi. The vast majority of island residents support the Maunakea Observatories, who have been part of this community for more than 50 years. Conflict about the Thirty Meter Telescope does not change the long-standing support our Observatories have earned, but it will undoubtedly influence its future. For the benefit of the people who work on the mountain, for those who practice their culture and religion on the mountain, we look to a future beyond coexistence because that still implies barriers. We look to a future in which knowledge and worldviews hybridize to create a reality more beautiful and resilient than its progenitors.

This is beginning already, through A Hua He Inoa, the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, black hole Pōwehi, and the unusual asteroids recently officially named Kamo‘oalewa and Ka‘epaoka‘awela by Hawaiian students. We look to a future for Maunakea where studies of the universe are buoyed by the wisdom of Hawaiian kupuna and grounded in the richness of Hawaiian culture. We are nurturing this future now as devoted members of the Hawaiʻi Island and international astronomy communities. We ask for the informed understanding and support of our international astronomy community to uphold this vision, which we believe will be an important part of everyone’s future.


Director Doug Simons, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
Director Pierre Martin, Hoku Kea Observatory
Director Jennifer Lotz, Gemini Observatory
Director Paul Ho, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (East Asian Observatory)
Interim Director Robert McLaren, Institute for Astronomy
Director John Rayner, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility
Director Michitoshi Yoshida, Subaru Telescope
Director Klaus Hodapp, UKIRT
Director Hilton Lewis, W.M. Keck Observatory (Keck I and Keck II)

Mauna Kea Rules Hearing

This evening was the local hearing for the proposed Mauna Kea Public Access Rules. As the hearing took place at Waikoloa School I had no excuse not to go, it is practically at the end of our street. Of course I was going to attend even if I had to drive across island, this is an issue that directly affects me.

An ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea
An ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea

And yes, I testified, attempting to summarize my three pages of written testimony in three minutes. I suspect I got the gist across in a clear fashion, I will submit my written testimony as well.

Other than myself the testifiers were completely drawn from the anti-telescope community. It is unfortunate that the issue has become so polarized that no other members of the community attended. Access to the mauna affects more than just the astronomy and anti-astronomy folks, this should be of interest to anyone who calls the island home.

As such many of the testifiers paid scant attention to the contents of the rules, instead of providing constructive input so much testimony was simply another protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope. Some form of rules need to be put in place with or without the new telescope.

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Public Access to Mauna Kea… Round 3

It is now round three for the Mauna Kea public access rules. The first versions of the rules were simply bad and rightly faced unanimous criticism from the community. Virtually nobody testified in support of the first version at the public meetings.

A crowd of tourists watching sunrise atop Mauna Kea
A crowd of tourists watching sunrise atop Mauna Kea

This latest version of the rules is much better, at least someone properly edited the rules and there are no complete blunders in the language.

There are still some items in the rules that are problematic. In general the university is attempting to regulate public activity on the mauna far beyond their mandate in the lease or in the comprehensive management plan.

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Preparing for the Storm

There will be protests, that much is clear. Beyond that certainty there is no certainty. When? How big? How long? We just do not know, it is likely no one does.

A mamane tree in the fog atop Mauna Kea
A mamane tree in the fog atop Mauna Kea

As we prepare for the restart of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, those of us whose lives revolve around the mauna can only guess and prepare best we can.

While there is news of plans at the state and county level to deal with the protests, there is little information on the details in those plans. Both sides are keeping their cards close. We are given to understand that the county will be the lead agency it is clear that there will be state support.

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A Tale of Two Earthquakes

Two earthquakes of the same magnitude strike our island a month apart. Two events that are quite interesting to us at the observatory. Both about the same magnitude, both occurring deep in the island, one was far more forceful at the telescopes causing some minor damage, the second caused no damage that we have found despite a thorough inspection.

Mauna Kea seen at dawn from Mauna Loa
Mauna Kea seen at dawn from Mauna Loa

Any strong earthquake is a concern for the telescopes. We need to know immediately just how strong the quake was, how much potential for damage occurred.

The telescopes are precision instruments with many delicate parts. On the other hand earthquakes are common on this volcanic island and we have learned how to deal with the shaking.

When attempting to measure the possible damage to the telescope it is not earthquake magnitude that is interesting. Rather we want to know the peak ground accelerations that occur at the summit facility. The actual forces that could potentially cause damage. These are measured by means of a logging accelerometer mounted in the basement of the observatory.

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Science Images are Ugly

One of the questions that comes up often enough is what do the pictures look like? And that question is followed by… Where can I see them.

A raw widefield 1.2um NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley
A raw widefield 1.2μm NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley

The problem… Science data is usually pretty ugly.

Keep in mind that the astronomers are often pushing the telescopes and instruments right to the limit. This means that the data is barely there, a trickle of photons that have come from unimaginably distant sources.

I have been in the observing room as the data comes in. I have watched over the telescope operator’s shoulder. It is strange to see folks so excited over a smudge.

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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.

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Giving Tours

It is odd working at a place that everyone wants to visit. To be expected working at the world’s best observatory, after a dozen years the novelty of the situation has never grown old.

Kama‘āina Observatory Experience Tour at Keck
A Kama‘āina Observatory Experience Tour group visiting Keck 2
I enjoy leading a tour through the building. Doing a tour gives me a chance to vicariously see the facility through my audience’s eyes, seeing this special place afresh, to renew the fascination and wonder.

I think I am a fairly good tour guide, everyone says so, they might be right. Certainly after a decade of tours I have heard most of the questions and have ready and well rehearsed answers.

Looking at the primary mirror of the Keck 1 telescope
Looking at the primary mirror of the Keck 1 telescope
Inside tours of Keck Observatory are currently only available two ways… Know someone who works at the observatory, or take one of the monthly Kama‘āina Observatory Experience tours offered through ‘Imiloa and supported by all of the Mauna Kea observatories.

The KOE tour is free, but open to Hawaii residents only, you have to have a Hawaii ID to go. Each month the tours visit two observatories, rotating through the various observatories on the summit. The tours are also immensely popular, filling up very quickly.

This coming Saturday the KOE tours will visit the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory. If you are on one of the morning tours, yes, I will be there, leading a tour through our facility.

Kepler Goes Silent

This last week we said goodbye to a truly pioneering space telescope. The Kepler mission was designed to find exoplanets, planets that orbit around other stars. The mission succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations.

Artist’s rendition of the Kepler Spacecraft in orbit around the Sun peering at a distant solar system, press release image from the NASA Kepler website
This little space telescope monitored over 500,000 stars during it’s mission, watching for the minuscule dip in brightness as a panet passed in front of the star. For nine years Kepler stared at those thousands of stars, during that time it discovered over 2,600 exoplanets. Along with the planets came a long list of other discoveries such as binary stars, variable stars, and novae.

After nine productive years this engine of discovery has come to an end. With the spacecraft out of fuel NASA flight engineers sent the last commands, shutting the spacecraft down.

The Keck Observatory and the Kepler Spacecraft had a great partnership. It was not possible to confirm most Kepler’s possible exoplanets using only data from the spacecraft. A large telescope using a high resolution spectrograph, like HIRES on Keck 1, would allow astronomers to not only confirm Kepler’s discovery, but to learn more about each exoplanet.

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