Across the room from my desk is a large cabinet full of blueprints and sepia prints. Stacks of large prints that represent the original drawings from which the W. M. Keck Observatory was constructed. Floor plans, foundation plans, the structural steel of the telescope itself.
The prints are in many ways works of art. Often drawn by hand these old prints represent a lost skill, the art of the draughtsman from before computers irreversibly changed the profession. Impeccably neat lettering, an arcane menagerie of symbols, coded shading to represent different materials, it takes time just to learn to read these drawings properly.
When 700 tons of steel and aluminum just keeps going when it is commanded to stop people tend to notice. When you let up on the switch it is supposed to stop, when that something is the Keck 1 telescope dome it gets interesting.
The first I knew about it was from John, our summit supervisor on the phone. Actually he had several folks on his end using the speakerphone, never a good sign when a phone call from the summit starts this way.
Three people describing a problem on the phone is a bit confusing, it takes a few minutes, and a few questions before I have a clear idea of what happened. Basically the dome did not stop when commanded to while they were operating with the radio controller, a bit of kit we call Capt. Marvel.
Of course a few minutes later our safety officer walks into my office… I wonder what she wants to talk about?
Keck Observatory is pushing the cutting edge of scientific discovery with the addition of the world’s most sensitive instrument for measuring the tendrils of faint gas in the intergalactic medium known as the cosmic web. The 5-ton instrument, the size of an ice cream truck, is named the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI). KCWI will uncover vital clues about the life-cycle of galaxies, helping to unravel mysteries about our universe.
Physics professor, Christopher Martin, and his team at Caltech, in collaboration with Keck Observatory, University of California Santa Cruz and industrial partners, designed and built the spectrograph to study the cosmic web in unprecedented detail. KCWI will enable astronomers to study many other exceedingly faint objects in the universe as well.
“For decades, astronomers have demonstrated that galaxies evolve. Now, we’re trying to figure out how and why,” says Martin, describing the potential of this instrument. “We know the gas around galaxies is ultimately fueling them, but it is so faint – we still haven’t been able to get a close look at it and understand how this process works.”
The design of KCWI is based on its predecessor, the Palomar Cosmic Web Imager. KCWI will be installed on one of the twin 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes, the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world. The telescopes’ location on Maunakea provides the most pristine viewing conditions in the world for this science. This unbeatable combination of technology and location will enable KCWI to provide some of the most-detailed glimpses of the universe ever, including the study of gas jets around young stars, the winds of dead stars and even supermassive black holes.
“The best location in the world for astronomy calls for the best tools for astronomy,” said Hilton Lewis, director of the Keck Observatory. “With KCWI on the world’s largest telescope, we are well positioned to develop our understanding of the evolution of galaxies by capturing high-resolution spectra of some of the faintest, most difficult to study objects in the universe in ways never before possible.”
KCWI arrived by ship from Los Angeles on January 20 and was carefully transported up to the observatory atop Maunakea. The instrument will be installed and tested, followed by the first observations in the coming months.
Over the years I have hand wired so many microcontroller PCB’s. Along with my own projects for myself there are more than a dozen of my little microcontroller devices at work about the observatory. The OSIRIS IR calibration source, the Keck 2 dome inclinometers, a precipitation sensor interface, the Keck 1 AO electronic vault temperature sensors, the weather mast fan and shelter controller, the list goes on. Anyplace a bit of electronic intelligence is needed for the task.
Of course the challenge is that each of these controllers has been hand wired and built for a specific task. This takes a few hours of running little wires on a perfboard. And while I enjoy such wiring, it does make the task take notably longer.
While a couple of my microcontroller designs have been laid out on proper circuit cards, like the SciMeasure camera exposure controllers, I have never laid out a general purpose microcontroller PCB. This is not for lack of thinking about it, so many times I have considered this could be so much easier if I could only invest a little time in a layout.
Calls from the summit facility are not exactly what I want to see on my phone display on Christmas Eve. Heather was very apologetic about calling, but she had no choice, the Keck 2 dome would not rotate.
Less than a minute into this conversation I realize the inevitable… This was not going to get fixed over the phone, I would be spending Christmas on the summit. I call John who is already scheduled to go up for the day… Pick me up on your way out of the village. 7am? I will be out front.
It was just before sunrise that we drove up the mountain from Waikoloa, the sun rising over the shoulder of Mauna Kea, casting long crepuscular rays into the sky. It is a beautiful Christmas morning, a clear sky, the snow capped summits of two volcanoes looming overhead. Heading to work on this morning is a bit surreal, while at the same time seeming a bit more festive for the snow.
With the first of December winter arrived on Mauna Kea.
It was a proper blizzard, images in the webcams of ice everywhere, blowing snow and accumulating drifts. From the satellite shots and doppler radar the weather was not going the let up anytime soon.
I was scheduled to go up today and arrived in Waimea well before 7am to meet the vehicles. The plan was to spend the day in Keck 2 AO dealing with an optical stage that needed adjustment.
Eric greeted me with an advisory, “If you do not need to go… Don’t”. He had obviously checked the morning reports, something I had not yet done. We pulled up a computer inside and looked at the webcams… Yeah, no need to sit at Hale Pohaku all day waiting for the snowplows. I will stay at HQ for the day, the adjustment can wait.
Several times during the recent contested case hearings I have listened to telescope opponents ask witnesses on the stand and under oath, “Have you asked the mauna?” or “Have you asked Poliʻahu?” I have heard a dozen variations on the question, but that is the general sense of it. They are asking if the witness has asked the gods or goddesses who are reported to dwell on Mauna Kea if building the telescopes is allowed. Poliʻahu in particular, the goddess of snows and ice, is identified with the summit of Mauna Kea.
The question strikes a particular resonance with me, returning to my thoughts again and again. I consider my relationship with the mauna, is it pono that I continue to work at an observatory and support the construction of TMT?
I think of all the nights I have spent alone on the mountain. So often I have sat in the quiet, with nothing but the mauna and the stars. Sometimes I am sitting beside a small telescope, and taking a break to simply enjoy the night. Sometimes I am waiting for a camera, somewhere nearby in the dark. Sometimes I am just sitting doing nothing at all, simply enjoying the beauty of this place. In any case I am alone with the silence, the stars, the mountain, and my thoughts.
Just checking to see if I got the wiring right. Some modifications to the telescope HBS, Hydraulic Bearing System, to allow for a slower startup. Some new hydraulic valves installed by Mark, a few new relays added by me, and the job is done. Hopefully less sputter and spitting on startup to keep the oil off the drive tracks. The system is a classic relay logic controlled setup, seriously old-school.
It is always a good day when I drive up the mountain to a broken telescope, then drive down leaving a working telescope. Easy to say, not always easy to accomplish, the simple statement obscuring a day of struggle to solve the problem and fix it.
Such a day was Monday.
The Keck 2 telescope drive is a complex beast of dozens of relays, miles of cabling, servo amplifiers and power supplies, plus several circuit boards designed and built in the 1980’s holding a bewildering array of arcane logic.