Waimea Planet Walk

Waimea was living up to reputation with a gusty wind and blowing mist. But this did little to dampen the Waimea Planet Walk sponsored by Keck and CFHT Observatories. A steady stream of parents and kids walked the length of the main street to visit the booths representing a scale model of the solar system.

Planet Walk
Keck Observatory’s Ashley Yeager answers questions about the Sun at the Waimea Planet Walk

The Sun and the inner solar system… Mercury, Venus Earth and Mars, all occupied the lawn directly in front of the Keck lobby. Each location was measured properly to achieve the correct position, each booth had a scale model of the planet to correctly interpret the scale of the entire solar system. This meant the Sun was about 8 inches (20cm) in diameter and the Earth a small dot mounted to a piece of wood. In the far corner of the Keck lawn, several hundred feet from the Sun, sat Jupiter represented by a 1/2-inch (1cm) ball bearing.

To visit the remainder of the solar system it was necessary to walk down Mamalahoa highway. Saturn sat in the upper corner of the KTA parking lot, beside the historic cemetery. Uranus was located in the lower corner of the KTA parking lot. Neptune in the park across the street from the library. At the end of the walk, Pluto and the rest of the TNO’s in the lawn of CFHT.

Everyone, volunteers and guests, seemed to be having a great time learning. All up and down the street walked parents and kids from station to station. It is always interesting to see the entire solar system represented to scale like this, even if you have seen it before. The experience is the first step to seeing just how big space is…

Enjoying the Moonlight

Deb and I did a volunteer evening at the VIS last night. A great night with a great crowd, the sort of evening that defines the reason we continue to volunteer at the Mauna Kea VIS. Lots of great questions, great conversations and a little learning about the sky and Mauna Kea. As the southern cross hung above the slopes of Mauna Loa my green laser was busy pointing out constellations and bright stars.

The only real problem with the evening was the nearly full Moon hanging in the sky. The bright moonlight drowning out many of the deep sky objects we would normally view. Even bright objects like M13 were merely dim smudged in the eyepiece in place of the beautiful sights they offer under darker skies. With these conditions much of the telescope viewing was concentrated on the Moon and a beautiful planet Saturn.

One activity that is always a hit with a bright Moon partly makes up for the loss of dark sky viewing. I hold and quick course in introductory lunar photography using the afocal method. Show a few people how to take lunar photos and there is soon a line of people waiting at the refractor for their turn to try a few frames. A few hints and people are quickly taking great lunar shots, a photo and a memory to take home from the mountain.

The evening sped by quickly, spent in conversation with guests from the islands and from across the US. People ask about the sky as seen from different latitudes and locations. A few visitors from other countries add their perspective. It is often interesting to hear about other names for constellations or to learn bits of folklore from many other cultures.

So often the crowd disappears an hour after dark, driven off by the cold and wind. This night many didn’t go until it was time to shut down the telescopes. I guess they were not ready to end an enjoyable evening under moonlight.

The Moon one day short of full, afocal photograph taken with a 102mm refractor, 32mm eyepiece and a Canon G9 camera.

Summit Chaos

Tuesday, April 27th was an exercise in chaos.

A convoy of observatory vehicles heads up the summit access road
It started when we arrived at the morning rendezvous and noted the number of vehicles waiting. Transportation sets up up as many vehicles as necessary based on the ride board, usually two or three vehicles are sitting by the door waiting to transport our crew to the summit. That morning there were five, and we all knew from the schedule that many more would be leaving later in the day. This was going to be a busy and crowded day.

At Hale Pohaku we were met by a film crew. Documentary film crews are an occupational hazard at Keck. I have appeared in more than one show. Not usually a problem, this day the crew would be yet one more complication.

For myself, things started to go bad with an email message, trouble with a key piece of equipment in AO. At the heart of the adaptive optics system is a thin flexible mirror that can change shape to correct the light, the DM or deformable mirror. In order to monitor this mirror a WYKO interferometer is used to image its surface. This device shines laser light at the mirror, the return light is interfered with itself, allowing the surface shape to be analyzed with incredible accuracy. This is used to calibrate the AO system at the beginning of each night. Gone was my plan of a simple day doing some documentation checks to prepare for some upcoming modifications to the system.

Continue reading “Summit Chaos”

Rained Out

Well, the Waikoloa Elementary School star party wasn’t much for stars. We did see one star briefly through the clouds. There were four telescopes setup in the schoolyard waiting in hopes that the clouds would clear, but it was not to be. We stood around talking story and examining Cliff’s 24″ telescope. A truss tube dob is a great scope to show how a telescope works, all the inner parts exposed.

We waited an hour, but around 8pm the first hints of rain began. As the drops thickened we scurried to get the telescopes put away.

My thanks to the WHAC members who came out in support of this event! We will be attempting to reschedule the event, possibly for May 22nd.

Primary Gecko

In the tropical climate of Hawaiʻi small creatures are commonly found among one’s belongings. Spiders, centipedes, scorpions and more are a fact of life and can be found in anything that has not been carefully stored. Telescopes are often housed in the garage, particularly the large dobsonians that are too large to easily be carried into the house.

Primary Gecko
A gecko in the center of a 24″ telescope mirror
In the process of setting up telescopes at the Mana Kea VIS we found another critter that had sought a home. Upon unpacking the 24″ scope belonging to Cliff Livermore we were all amused to find a gecko atop the primary mirror when opening the cover of the box.

One can only imagine the poor creature’s predicament. A seemingly nice quiet, warm and dark place now subject to a great deal of motion and upheaval. Then the cover is removed to allow admission of cold mountain air. Hardly the safe refuge expected when the animal crawled into the box.

Primary Gecko
A gecko in the center of a 24″ telescope mirror
The discovery of this poor creature evoke an immediate response, a crowd of laughing humans quickly gathered round the mirror box.
It was notable that everyone’s reaction was the same. Not the revulsion that finding a cockroach or centipede would have caused in the same situation. A gecko is almost universally liked, the results were laughter and amusement.

Instead of being hunted down and squished, this gecko was carefully caught to be given a ride back down the mountain to the warm tropical climate of Waikoloa. The next day he was released into the new rock wall I am building in the back yard for a vegetable bed. With the voids among the rock, this wall is a perfect gecko habitat.

Keck and Kepler Team Up to Find Other Earths

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

For nearly a decade, Cal-Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy and his colleagues have been using the W. M. Keck telescopes to discover giant planets orbiting distant stars. Now, with the successful launch of NASA’s Kepler mission, they will be using Keck I’s ten-meter astronomical eye to discover distant Earths. Kepler will pick out Earth-like candidates. Keck will then zero in on them and determine, with certainty, if they are at all similar to our home planet.

“Keck and NASA have a long-standing partnership to push astronomy research to its fullest potential. This Keck-Kepler collaboration gives that partnership a compelling new scientific focus,” said Taft Armandroff, the Director of Keck Observatory headquartered in Kamuela, HI.

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
Kepler was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last Friday.  Aboard the spacecraft is an 84-megapixel camera that will focus on a single region of the sky and snap repeated images of 100,000 stars looking for those that dim periodically. By studying the stars’ episodic decreases in starlight, astronomers will be able to determine the diameter of the object that passes in front of the star, blocks its light and causes the dimming.

“Kepler does not tell astronomers with certainty if the object taking a bite out of the starlight is a planet or another star. That is where Keck plays a crucial role to the Kepler mission,” said Marcy, a frequent Keck user and Kepler mission co-investigator. He, along with a large international planet-hunting team, has discovered nearly half of the 300-plus known planets outside the Solar System.

Continue reading “Keck and Kepler Team Up to Find Other Earths”

Laser Launch Telescope

A big milestone arrived this week. The launch telescope arrived from the manufacturer. It is an impressive instrument itself, a half meter aperture, an extraordinarily short focal length, made to very exacting precisions, even for optics. It is a cassegrain design with an focal ratio of f/1. The primary is coated with a custom coating designed for maximum reflectance at the 589nm sodium D line, where the laser will operate. This gives the primary a notably orange cast that is quite beautiful. The entire telescope is enclosed in an airtight aluminum shell with the optics supported on a carbon fiber frame within.

Laser Launch Telescope
Kenny Grace inspecting the Keck 1 laser launch telescope during incoming inspection after unpacking
This is one of the key components in creating a laser for the Keck 1 adaptive optics system. An enormous amount of work has gone into preparing for the laser… modifications to the structure of the Keck 1 telescope, cabling, electrical power and liquid cooling plumbing. An insulated room built on the side of the telescope to house the laser and a safety system to comply with laser safety regulations. All of this in preparation for the arrival of two key components, the laser itself and the launch telescope that will focus this light into a clean beam rising into the night sky over Mauna Kea.

The entire assembly will mount behind the secondary of K1. This is different than the current laser in Keck 2 that is emitted from a launch telescope along the side of the main telescope. Having the laser on the side creates some problems for the AO wavefront controller, the artificial guidestar can be elongated by parallax when seen from the other side of a ten meter telescope. Having the laser launched from the center of the main telescope is a far more optimal solution. But doing that takes a far more difficult to design and build launch telescope as it has to be extraordinarily compact.

We expect delivery of the laser itself in May. Our laser engineer has been working with the laser manufacturer to insure it meets all specifications. Reports indicate it is not only meeting those specifications, but surpassing them. When we take delivery there will be a period of testing before the equipment is trucked to the mountain for installation in its final position.

The coming week will be fun, need to string a new set of cables to the Keck 1 secondary mirror. This means 150 feet of cabling from the Nasmyth Deck, up the tubular structure of the telescope and across the spider to the secondary. On a ten meter telescope this means a lot of high work from the personnel bucket of the jib crane among the girders of the telescope. This is going to be fun!

Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin

Another frame of Comet Lulin taken from the driveway. This one was taken on the evening of the 26th, a day after opposition, when the comet was directly opposite the sun in the sky. The interesting ion tail that was to the west of the nucleus has swung around behind the coma from our point of view. The frame was aligned on the comet as it moved and processed to suppress the streaked stars.

C/2007 N3 Lulin
Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin on the evening of 26 Feb 2009, a stack of 10 x 4 min exposures, Canon 20Da and TeleVue 76mm APO