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.

I am usually game for a photo expedition to the summit. In this case the excuse was a request from Sean Goebel to do some photography around Keck. This would be an official photo-op, commercial film permits from the state, Keck Observatory sponsorship and all. As such we need to provide an escort. I suppose I will go… If I have to…

The film permits turned out to be far more trouble than usual. The state was being a stickler about insurance requirements. In the end we had to get the observatory lawyer involved to provide the needed documentation to keep the state film board happy. We only got the permits at the last moment before heading to the summit.

It was not just both Keck telescopes observing the ultra-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy this night. Along with both Keck telescopes, Andrea’s group scheduled Chandra, Spitzer, and more. The plan is to measure short term variability of the accretion disk around the black hole, something that can change on the timescale of hours. Not only observe it, but do so in a wide range of different wavelengths, thus the use of both ground and space based telescopes that span the spectrum from IR, visible, and x-ray.

Sean and I departed Hale Pōhaku just after dinner with plenty of time to shoot sunset. First order of business was filming opening. Shooting time lapse from the observatory roof. I was able to arrange the dome positions with the telescope operators to face the camera when opening.

With the fall of darkness and the appearance of lasers we spread out to shoot more time lapse. Using Keck as a basecamp Sean headed to the west side, I headed for the east side. We could chat via radio to keep tabs on each other and the telescope operations, a useful layer of safety.
We were not alone on the summit, there were several other photographer’s about. Don and Linda Hurzeler were there. We talked for a bit, noting who was up on the summit this night. Their lights caught one of my time lapse cameras pretty badly, ruining the sequence.

I did get some nice material, also proving out my sidereal rate tracking platform. Still compiling imagery for another photo project.

The local photo group on Facebook has been filled with Keck laser shots this last week. I think everyone headed for the summit on one night or another. It was a good night, will have to go back and shoot some more. Hmmm? The schedule looks good next weekend, only one laser on the galactic center, otherwise both lasers will be operational!

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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