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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TMT Permit Upheld by State Supreme Court

Mid-morning the awaited news found me… The Hawaii State Supreme Court has upheld the conservation district use permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

The Thirty Meter Telescope site as seen from the top of Keck 2 dome
The Thirty Meter Telescope site as seen from the top of Keck 2 dome
We had been waiting for this decision for some time. Based on the usual length of time the court takes to decide a case the decision should have appeared well over a month ago.

To no one’s surprise, the court took a little longer with this particular case. A case fraught with many questions that are hotly debated in this state.

The news quickly fueled a firestorm of mainstream media articles across the country and social media postings. The pro-telescope communities I participate in were celebrating. Opponents were decrying the decision with responses that range from disbelief to inflammatory.

Mid-afternoon found me atop the Keck 2 dome to check on some instrumentation. From there I had a perfect vantage point to look down upon the TMT site on the north plateau. I stopped to consider what those few acres of rock below had cost so far in terms of time and passion.

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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.

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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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