New LED Streetlights for the Big Island

The changeover is inevitable. LEDs are the most power-efficient commercially available light source. Their longer lifetimes, greater light-per-watt and lower installation costs make it only a matter of time before most light sources in the world are LED. The fixtures and bulbs are still notably more expensive, but that’s offset by lower energy usage and longer lifetimes.

LED versus Low Pressure Sodium
Downtown Waimea with new streetlights
No light is exempt from the LED changover, not even the ubiquitous streetlamp.

Streetlights consume an enormous amount of the power generated across the globe. Here in the islands, where power is more expensive than much of the nation, the power savings make LED streetlights very attractive. As Hawai’i County taxpayers this is something that we should all be concerned with, we pay the power bill for the thousands of streetlights across the island.

The best competing technology is low pressure sodium (LPS). It is this streetlight technology that is currently used throughout Hawai’i. LPS emits all of its light at a single wavelength, 589nm, a golden yellow. Many people dislike the yellow color, and it can be confused with the yellow of a changing intersection signal. The large LPS bulbs are difficult to design fixtures around, resulting in lamps that throw light in all directions, not just where needed. As a result, many LPS fixtures create a lot of glare for drivers and surrounding homes and businesses.

LPS lights do have advantages, of course. They are quite power efficient, emitting all the light near the peak sensitivity of the human eye. Astronomers prefer the light of LPS lamps, as the single wavelength can be easily filtered or simply ignored when seen in their data. Between the power savings and the astronomy friendly aspects, LPS had been the outdoor lighting of choice across the state. The result is the familiar golden glow above any urban area in the islands.

But change is coming, with LEDs already beginning to replace LPS streetlights. Hawai’i County has planned for some time to convert to LED technology and evaluation of the new lamps has been going on at several test locations. With the success of those tests more widespread deployment is just beginning. This last month the new LED streetlights were installed around the town of Waimea. For many this is the first chance to see the new lights in place.

The recent conversion allowed an opportunity to compare the new with the old. Taken midway through the change out, the photo shows the new lights down the right side of the street, while the older low pressure sodium lights have yet to be replaced on the left side of the street. In order to faithfully reproduce the scene, the photo was taken in raw mode with daylight white balance used to produce the image shown.

The new lights are dramatically better than the old, unshielded LPS lights. Because of their vastly reduced glare, you simply do not see the lights themselves from any distance. Even nearby the lights do not produce the distracting glare of the older designs. Note, also, that all of the older LPS lights create yellow halos of glare in the photo, all the way down the street. While the new LED lights become hard to see once you are out from underneath the light. In the photo, the third LED light from the camera is just seen and the fourth is hard to pick out.

The improvement is immediately noticeable while driving the main street of Waimea. The LED lights are difficult to see directly, while the light provided on the roadway is just as good if not better than the older LPS fixtures. This is a street that has substantial pedestrian traffic and other vehicles pulling in and out of the many businesses, so good visibility is critical for safety.

The comparison here is not completely fair. The low pressure sodium fixtures used on much of the island, including Waimea are poor examples of modern lighting design. Well-designed low pressure sodium fixtures would compare somewhat more favorably. Still, LED’s are easier light sources to design a decent fixture around because LED’s are nearly point sources, not a large gas tube. Designing a good reflector and a decent cutoff shield is quite difficult for low pressure sodium bulbs.

One advantage of the better light design is reduced “light trespass.” That means less light shining onto areas where it is not needed. Directing the light properly onto the roadway means less light shining into the windows of adjacent homes, or upwards to light the sky and outwards to confuse birds or sea turtles.

Additionally, the new LED lamps installed on the island have specially designed blue cutoff filters. This is critical for the observatories. White LED lights use a blue or violet LED to excite a phosphor that converts the blue light to a white light. After the conversion a large amount of this blue light leaks through the phosphor. It is this blue light that is most troubling to astronomers because it readily scatters in air, an effect called Rayleigh scattering. This is the same effect that makes the sky blue during the day. The sky is naturally darker in the blue region of the spectrum, thus any light pollution at this wavelength creates a larger impact on astronomy. The special filters, therefore, keep the LED lamps from backfiring and creating more light pollution.

So far Hawai’i County’s conversion to LED lights is just beginning. One thousand lamps were ordered, and only a handful have been installed so far, mostly near intersections. While we hope that the effects improve safety, reduced light pollution, and reduced power bills, it will be some time before we see the real impact of the new lights and have a chance to measure the changes.

The Last Interferometer Run

Tomorrow morning I will begin to power down the systems. One by one I will open the switches on gear that has rarely been powered off in years. In a matter of minutes it will be off. Dozens of computers, servo drives, camera controllers, racks of gear, silent and dark. I will also shut off the liquid nitrogen to each camera in turn. This will take a bit longer, a couple weeks will be needed to properly warm and back-fill each camera with dry nitrogen for storage. Meanwhile, Brett will carefully cover each optical surface in optical cloth and plastic. A few bits of gear installed in the telescope will be removed to be stored in the basement. By the end of August the Keck Interferometer will be mothballed.

This is the last run, three nights of observations. Two of those are behind us, the third beginning, the end is rapidly approaching.

FATCAT Dichroics
The FATCAT dichroic beamsplitters in the Keck interferometer beam lab
I look about at all of the gear and consider the thousands upon thousands of hours it took to assemble, test and troubleshoot this complex scientific instrument. Years of work by so many people. I look about the control room at the racks of equipment, the masses of cabling, the physical results of so much effort. The non-physical likewise represents a staggering amount of work, the software that allows the entire system to operate. My own contribution seems insignificant. Here and there I note pieces of gear I installed, cables run, cards I have modified, and some many parts of the system that I have had to repair across the years. The sense of loss at shutting this system down is overwhelming.

The plan is to carefully mothball the interferometer in place, in such a way as it could be reactivated with a few weeks of work. Maybe, some source of funding might allow the instrument to be used again, that is the hope. But we know how difficult the current budget environment has become.

Fast Delay Lines
The Keck Interferometer beam expanders and fast delay lines
Still, we are going out in style. This last run has attempted what has never been tried before… We are using AO lasers on both telescopes to reach targets never reachable before. The newly commissioned Keck 1 laser capability making this possible. We have successfully gathered data using the dual laser AO mode, a real first.

Oddly, one of our laser spotters did not make it to the summit and I was obliged to fill in. Fortunately it was a lovely night on the summit, not very cold and with no wind to make it miserable. For a couple hours I relaxed in the Laser Suzan chair, watching the sky. Above me arched the Milky Way, somewhat dimmed by a bright Moon, but still beautiful. A few bright meteors punctuated the night. The scene was a made a bit surreal by three lasers, all targeting the galactic core, the very center of our galaxy. Beside me the camera regularly issued the soft sound of the shutter, taking images of the night.

The second night was a series of galactic targets and a couple AGN’s. The final analysis will take time, but initial indications are that we have good data on at least some of the targets. A couple targets proved too faint for the system to track on. No surprise, we planned to reach a little with this last run.

Thus we begin this last night, the practiced evening routine is complete, final checks done. The last targets a list of selected YSO’s (young stellar objects) to be observed in L-Band. We settle in for the night, hopefully a quiet night. As usual, if I am busy, things are not good. All is going well, a fitting end to the instrument and a testament to all those who have put so much into the system. Something to remember.

An Astronomy Discovery in the News

So a little telescope called Hubble takes a picture of a galaxy, a really distant galaxy over 10 billion lightyears away. Odd, it looks like this galaxy has gotten it’s act together and become a spiral galaxy, a lot earlier than we thought proper spiral galaxies would form. What do you do? Get some time on a bigger telescope and get some more data… Using Keck the OSIRIS spectrograph astronomers show that this is indeed a proper spiral galaxy, 10.7 billion light years away, which means 10.7 billion years in the past. The universe has just served up another surprise for astronomers, this is the sort of stuff we love.

HST/Keck false colour composite image of galaxy BX442. Credit: David Law; Dunlap Insitute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
Better yet, Keck gets a bit of good press for the discovery.

First spiral galaxy in early Universe stuns astronomers – BBC News

Earliest spiral galaxy found – CBC News

Astronomers find rare spiral galaxy in early Universe – The Sydney Morning Herald

Along with the sensible headlines there are those that play up the “This can’t be” angle of the discovery. For the most part the articles are fairly good, it is just the headlines that seem a little off, something to blame on the editors who write the headlines…

Hubble spots spiral galaxy that shouldn’t exist – Los Angeles Times

Astronomers Spot Ancient Spiral Galaxy From an Era When Spirals Should Not Exist – Popular Scince

Hubble spots rule-breaking spiral galaxy – 3 News

Headlines are always an issue in science reporting. Written by editors with a tendency to the excessive and sensational. Editors who often have little understanding of the science. We have seen what that can lead to, something that has been pleasantly rare with this latest discovery.

First Ancient Spiral Galaxy Discovered From 10.7 Billion Years Ago – Latinos Post

Is this the “first” spiral? We have no way of knowing. I have found no such quote from the astronomers involved with the discovery. The reason we study the early universe is that we do not know. This discovery shows that there could be others, perhaps even older.

There are other headlines, predictable headlines from the usual suspects. Every time science turns up some surprise, something that does not fit a simplistic view of the universe, those with an ideological agenda attempt to use the discovery to push their views… “Look at this! It disproves everything!!”, ” The scientists have it all wrong!!” Quite predictable…

Mystery galaxy could unravel Big Bang theory of creation – Catholic Online

And of course, scientists will need to look for other exceptions to the rule. If an inexplicable and significant number of premature spirals are found, then the Big Bang theory will need to be rewritten, or disposed of altogether, no matter how beloved it is today. After all, it is just a theory.

Yes, again you see the “It is Just a Theory” gambit, the creationists favorite canard. All a discovery like this proves is that the universe is a complex and fascinating place and that we still have much to learn.

“BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent than the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us. Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure.” – Alice Shapely of UCLA, co-discoverer of BX442

A Case Study Tourist Trap

It hits you as soon as you step through the front door. There is only one thought that describes it… tourist trap.

Dole Plantation
The Dole Plantation in Wahiawa, Oahu
The signs are classic, you enter and exit through the gift shop. It isn’t a little gift shop either, but a large operation with every type of tacky tourist wares. This is a place where the tour buses stop. A place designed to extract as much money as possible in the short time available before the bus moves on to the next stop around the island.

I have been to tourist traps so kitschy they actually become fun. Between Benson and Wilcox, Arizona, along I-10 is The Thing. The place make no pretense about being a pure tourist trap. Admission to the museum that includes the namesake mummy/artifact/side-show-exhibit is actually quite cheap, $1 per person last time I was there. They obviously make the money in the gift shop. Beside The Thing itself, the little museum is surprisingly decent, with western memorabilia, wagons and old cars. If you take the place for what it is you can simply enjoy the experience, with some ice cream on the way out.

Pineapples in the demonstration garden at the Dole Plantation
The Dole Plantation is simply a tourist trap, without many redeeming features. They charge for most everything, the maze is $6/person, the train is $8, the garden tour is $5. Visit a couple spots and it quickly adds up. The prices in the gift shop are not much better. I had to laugh when I saw the prices for the small packages of macadamia nuts. You could buy twice as much of the same brand in any local supermarket.

There were a few simple signs in the garden that explained the history of the Dole pineapple empire and it’s founder, James Dole. The story is a fascinating example of a determined businessman who took a quiet local market and turned it into a global industry. It is a classic example of the plantation history of Hawai’i, with all of the good and ugly bits mixed in. Likely you will not learn much visiting the place. There was supposed to be something more of a museum here, if it still existed I could not find it behind all the tasteless merchandise. A bit of history, something real, anything would have created a more worthwhile stop. I guess it would just take up space that could be used for another rack of hula skirts.

I must admit it was not all bad… Walking through the garden Deb and I discovered the best part. There were cute little Carolina anoles all through the bromeliads. We must have spent half an hour chasing anoles trying to get good photos, with some success. The pineapple ice-cream float wasn’t so bad either.

Venus Transit Thoughts

Tomorrow we will witness an astronomical spectacle that will not be seen again by anyone currently alive. The gear has been double checked, packed and loaded. Telescopes, cameras and computers are ready, with the exception of a few camera batteries awaiting their turn in the charger.

Imaging Venus in the Daytime
Testing gear for the Transit of Venus.
It is an odd sense of anticipation I feel. I have had the transit marked in my mental calendar for eight years, since I was unable to see the first transit of this pair. I have had a blog post written and scheduled for June 5th, 2012 ever since I moved to the island five years ago. Every time I logged into the administrator page, there it was, at the top of the list, ever so slowly growing closer. That day is here.

After a great deal of work, the gear is ready, a big source of apprehension has been dealt with. There is some doubt about the weather, with both high winds and possible clouds an issue. But there is nothing I can do about that. I can go into tomorrow and have fun with this event. It will be a very long and tiring day at the summit. Whatever happens, it will be a day for memories.

There is a new blog post entered now, for August 17th, 2017, another five years from now. On that day a total solar eclipse will sweep across the Pacific Northwest. We amateur astronomers schedule our lives a bit further ahead than most. I plan to be there.

Celebrating Dark Skies

Earth at Night
A view of the Earth compiled from nighttime shots from the DMSP satellites, image credit NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Here on the Big Island we are fortunate to have very dark skies. Skies from which the stars shine brightly. This is not the case for so many, people who live where city lights have drowned out the glory of the universe in a haze of artificial light.

So often I talk to visitors who come from places where they might see a mere handful of stars. To live in or worse, to grow up in a major metropolitan area, is to lose the beauty that is our night sky. To lose the view of our universe is to reduce that vast universe to just our everyday world. You lose the imagination and sense of wonder that can change everything.

Maybe I am weird, I make a point to get out and spend nights under a dark sky. With a telescope I pass the night looking into the vastness of space. With that experience comes a broader understanding of the scale of our universe and our place within it. To see the galaxies, to know what they are, to gain a glimmer of understanding, it changes your view of who and what we are.

To me this is precious.

Light pollution may be an issue few understand. It has many consequences… Vast amounts of wasted energy and money, impacts on our health and the health of our natural environment. There are many reasons to minimize the impact of artificial lighting. Of these reasons, it is the loss of the starry night sky that can sever our connection to the universe.

This week is International Dark Skies Week. Take a moment to look up at the night sky and understand what you may have have lost.

The Magnificent Night Sky: How to Protect It from Keck Observatory on Vimeo.

SB 2104 on Electronic Harrasment

This has been the year for internet legislation in the Hawaii legislature. First there was the terrible HB 2288 that would require complete records of all personal internet activity to be kept for two years. This bill has been deferred, and is hopefully dead, after active opposition in the press, social media and pressure from internet service providers. The measure received nationwide media attention, overwhelmingly negative attention, when it was first proposed.

The current focus of attention is on SB2104, which attempts to address online harassment. The bill defines electronic harassment as follows…

(g) Makes any form of electronic communication, as defined in section 711-1111(2), including electronic mail transmissions, that is directed at a specific person and causes emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose. SB2104 as of 10Jan2011

Other island bloggers have posted on this measure. Interestingly with opposite takes on the issue. Tiffany has come out in wholehearted support of SB2104, while Damon has come out in opposition, citing free speech issues.

I usually side with free speech, even in the face of offensive speech. I am particularly sensitive to anything that threatens our use of electronic communications, a tool that is increasingly important in our society. It is the net that has facilitated true social opposition and organization to counterbalance the abuse of governmental or corporate economic power. It was the stunningly rapid response on social websites and blogs that halted the SOPA and PIPA legislation in the US Congress. A clear example of the power available to our communities through these new media.

With that in mind I have some real problems with the language on this one. I can all to easily imagine this sort of legislation being used to stifle legitimate comment and opinion. While I applaud the intention, to limit cyberbullying, I am not sure if this can be addressed like this without impinging on freedom of speech.

Science Illiteracy at the Star-Advertiser

We do like it when Keck Observatory is featured in the local papers. We are proud of the ‘scopes and take notice when we get some good press. The Star-Advertiser is the major daily paper for Honolulu and much of the state. I have even had some of my photographs published in the paper. Another article about Keck appeared today, but this time they simply display their ignorance of basic science.

Keck telescope helps discover 3 small planets outside Milky Way

The headline quickly had my attention. Exoplanet discoveries are coming fast with the Kepler Spacecraft / Keck Observatory team confirming alien worlds at a breakneck pace. It was the “outside the Milky Way” part that had my attention. I had no idea our current technology was capable of that! KOI-961 is a red-dwarf, a small, fairly dim class of star. It is difficult to even detect these stars at great distances, much less get the data needed to confirm orbiting planets. Something wrong here.

I double checked other sources… KOI-961 is actually fairly close to us in galactic terms, a mere 130 light years away. Given that the Milky Way Galaxy is well over 100,000 light years across, it puts KOI-961 well inside our galaxy. The article is actually reasonable, it appears to have simply taken the information from a press release, hard to screw up a cut and paste job. The headline however is where they stumbled hard.

Someone at the Star-Advertiser needs to take a basic astronomy course. Or maybe, simply check Wikipedia!

Update… They have fixed it. I forwarded the link to Larry O’Hanlon, the Keck PIO, whom I work with regularly. He called the S-A and apparently pointed out the issue. I would have loved to listen in on that conversation. The headline and text are edited now on the S-A website, but I kept a screenshot…


Outside the Milky Way?  Not really...
Outside the Milky Way? Not really...

Lasers and Aircraft

Those of us who use green lasers for astronomy outreach are always worried about law enforcement cracking down on these devices. As the lasers get cheaper and more available they inevitably get into the hands of those who do not use them responsibly. Worse, the lasers are easily available at power levels that are truly dangerous.

Laser and Stars
Deb pointing out the star βPhoenicis to VIS volunteer Joe McDonough
The problem has continued to escalate, each year there are more reported incidents of aircraft being illuminated by the laser of some idiot (yes, the correct term) who thinks it might be cool to tempt fate and the law. In 2010 there were 2836 incidents reported to the FAA, up from only a few hundred a few years before. With this sort of trend it seems inevitable there will be some sort of official reaction.

Illuminating an aircraft with a laser can be prosecuted under federal law. Not because there is any specific statute addressing lasers, but as it is deemed “Interference with a Crewmember” using an interpretation of a pre-existing 1961 federal law, specifically 14 CFR 91.11.

The FAA has put together a new webpage on lasers and aircraft safety. The page organizes and links some informative resources. This includes a couple reports on the possible effects of laser illumination on aircraft crew, as well as the legal and regulatory recommendations of the FAA. I urge anyone who uses these devices to follow the link and do a little reading.

Used responsibly these lasers are extraordinarily useful in astronomy education. Nothing grabs the crowd’s attention so quickly as that brilliant green beam. Everyone can follow along without confusion as objects are pointed to across the sky. From the constellations to the Milky Way, satellites, planets and zodiacal light, on to star clusters and galaxies, everyone knows right where to look. I do prefer lasers in the 20-30mW range, bright enough to be seen by a crowd, even under moonlight. Not powerful enough to easily injure in the case of a brief exposure to the beam.