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.

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.

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…


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 original blueprints by which Keck Observatory was constructed
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.

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It is not supposed to do that…

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.

Snow Day
Looking across at the Keck 1 dome from the top of Keck 2 with Mauna Loa in the background
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?

Yeah, I probably need to figure this out.

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KCWI Arrives on the Mountain

W. M. Keck Observatory News Release

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.

KCWI being lifted off the trailer at Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Jan 20, 2017
KCWI being lifted off the trailer at Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Jan 20, 2017
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.

GenPIC, A Microcontroller Utility PCB

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.

A PCB assembly in layout
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.

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