Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience

One of the things the recent controversy has starkly revealed is the lack of understanding of what we do on the mountain. Myths and misunderstandings pepper the comment sections of local newspapers and echo on Facebook.

Keck Domes
Looking at the Keck domes from the Subaru catwalk
In an effort to change this the obsevatories are introducing a new tour opportunity. The Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience is a free tour of an observatory, with free transportation to the summit for local residents. All that is necessary is a local ID to get a chance to see inside one of the summit facilities.

Rumor has it that Hawaii Forest and Trail will be providing the transport, a comfortable service with knowledgable guides.

Surprisingly this was announced by President Obama at the White House Star Party this week. A rather high profile announcement for a local effort.

I will probably volunteer to help out and be a tour guide when it comes Keck’s turn to host the tour.

Information can be found on the website http://www.kamaainaobservatoryexperience.org

On Time Again

So last month the observatory clocks decided is was 1995. A software bug interfered with proper decoding of the GPS time signal. For a few weeks we got by by kludging two of the old clocks together in a creative way to provide good time for the telescopes.

The new clocks are now fully online and operational. I ran one of the new time servers for a couple weeks while keeping the old time servers in place as a backup. These have now been removed, with a second new unit installed as an in-place spare.

Hopefully this will keep everything on-time for the foreseeable future. Two new precision clocks, Microsemi SyncServer S350’s, time accurate to microseconds.

Meantime there may be a fix for the old equipment, a new GPS module by Heol Design. We have one on order to try. It would be a shame to throw out these very nice clocks.

Observatory Clocks
Two new GPS time servers installed in the Keck 2 computer room

A Matter of Time

Time… It is simply a matter of time. At 00:00UT May 3rd, many of the observatory computers suddenly started reporting that the date was September 17th, 1995. To say that this created some problems is a dramatic understatement.

Datum TS2100 Time Servers
Two Datum TS2100 time servers installed above the telescope drive control computer (TDC)

The problem came from the primary observatory clock. This clock, properly called a time server, uses GPS signals to create a time reference that is accurate to microseconds. This is made possible by referencing to the atomic clocks carried by each GPS satellite. A time server is intricately connected to the network to distribute this time. Any computer in the building can ask it for time via the NTP protocol, but that has some inaccuracy due to network delays. For equipment requiring more precise time the server distributes a hard wired time reference using the IRIG-B protocol or a 1PPS timing pulse.

Without accurate time a telescope will simply not point in the correct direction. The calculation that the computers perform must take into account our rotating planet. Feed incorrect time to that calculation and you will point to the wrong piece of sky. A few milliseconds off can result in a pointing error of arcseconds, a large error for a large telescope.

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Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea

Here is the video of last Friday’s presentation, Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea. Well worth the watch for anyone interesting in the issue. My thanks to Doug Simons for representing the observatories!

If there is any complaint about the camera work… My fault.

Perspectives on the Future of Maunakea from CFHT on Vimeo.

JAC is No More

With the start of March the observatory known as JAC is no more. The Joint Astronomy Center ran two telescopes, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). Both telescopes have been transferred to new management and will continue to pursue science.

You can get more details on Tom Kerr’s blog A Pacific View.

I would also suggest you take a few minutes and enjoy some beautiful time-lapse to celebrate the achievements of the JAC…

Starlapse: The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope from William Montgomerie on Vimeo.

MastCam

Some parts of the job are simply fun. Installing the various upgrades to the weather system has been just that. The latest piece of kit being more fun than usual.

Weather Mast
The Keck weather mast with a sonic anemometer at top, MastCam, and the housings for the temperature, humidity and barometric pressure sensors.
We are installing a number of new cameras throughout the facility. Replacing an ancient CCTV system that still uses composite video and black and white monitors. Yeah, that ancient. The system is quite useful, it allows visibility of the telescopes from the operator stations and the manual control panels when you are driving the telescope.

Even that is topped by the camera I installed this fall. The latest camera is a new pan-tilt-zoom camera attached to the weather mast.

The camera does have more prosaic reasons to justify the effort of installing it. With the camera the operators can observe the weather conditions around the telescope, observing supervisors can view the ice and snow on the domes from Waimea, the day crew can check the weather conditions before driving to the summit, and more. The camera does have enough sensitivity to see the brighter stars and the banks of fog that roll over the summit. In full dark and at full gain the image is noisy and faint, not all that great. Given just a little moonlight the performance is much better, allowing visibility of oncoming clouds.

MastCam Ice
Hanging ice blocks the view of MastCam after a severe winter storm on January 4th, 2015
Weather conditions can be extreme on the summit. Last week’s storm being a good example… 100mph sustained winds, 135mph gusts, more than a foot of ice coating any vertical surface and several inches on the ground. The camera is rated to survive such conditions, and has now survived its first major winter storm. Electronic operation is guaranteed by the manufacturer for -40°C, and there is a heater and blower inside the camera dome to remove ice. It was able to melt its way clear, at least partially on the first day, while it took a week to clear the domes for operation.

Even more fun! On Christmas Eve I was contacted by Hawaii News Now for photos of the storm, they were eager to do something about a white Christmas for the evening news. As I had not been to the summit and no one on our crew was up, I simply grabbed some MastCam images and forwarded them. The images were aired in the first couple minutes of the Honolulu evening news!

The camera is not available to the public, it would be too much wear and tear to the pan-tilt mechanism and a huge hog of bandwidth. You have to be inside the Keck network to use, from there it is available to anyone on staff. It has proven quite popular, with many folks using the imagery to check on mountain conditions in the latest bad weather.

Next up, yet more cameras in the dome and even a couple on top of the domes. there is also a precipitation sensor and more in the works for the weather station.

OK, enough fun, back to revising the Keck 2 dome schematics.

A Tour of the Submillimeter Realm

In past years the club has toured the various optical observatories on Mauna Kea. Telescopes like Keck, Gemini and CFHT represent some of the largest optical telescopes in the world. There are a set of telescopes on the summit that often get overlooked, the submillimeter observatories. CSO, JCMT, and SMA all operate beyond the infrared in the submillimeter wavelengths of 0.3 to 1.4mm. These instruments enable the study of the cold and dark universe. The vast clouds of gas and dust than make up so much of the cold material between the stars and galaxies. The raw material from which everything we know is created, and to which we will return one day when the Sun has exhausted its hydrogen fuel.

Submillimeter Tour
Simon Radford gives the members of WHAC a tour of CSO

Personally I had never visited these facilities, not during my seven years on the mountain. This is something that had to change. I suspected that this was true of most of the West Hawaii Astronomy club membership. It is even more imperative in that one of the facilities, CSO, is to be decommissioned and dismantled in the next few years. Thus the goal of visiting at least a couple of the submillimeter facilities to see the other side of Mauna Kea astronomy.

When arranging the tour I contacted all three submillimeter facilities on the summit. I would have considered getting two out of three a success, I knew that there was no way I would manage to get all three scheduled for a single day. The submillimeter observatories have much smaller staffs than the large optical telescopes like Keck, thus providing a tour to a visiting group is much more difficult. In the end all three observatories were able to provide a tour on the same afternoon, something I am still surprised about. A great deal of gratitude is due to the folks who drove up the mountain on a Saturday to give our group a wonderful tour.

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