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.

Continue reading “A Tour of the Submillimeter Realm”

Kealakehe HS Star Party

I was just a bit surprised… A clear sky over Kealakehe High School in the evening. This almost never happens, usually the lee side of Hualalai is a mass of clouds in the late afternoon and evening. There is only one thing to conclude… We got lucky.

Kealakehe Star Party
Cliff sets up his 24″ scope on the next target.
Actually is was the families and students attending the Kealakehe STEM Camp who got lucky. With clear skies we were able to show the hundreds of parents and students the stars, planets, and the Moon in the telescopes. I really did not think it would happen, I was clear enough in South Kohala, but as I drove down the coast I could see the big nimbus clouds over Kona. As it grew dark the clouds dissipated and the stars appeared, we were going to have a star party.

We had five scopes, from Charlie’s 80mm refractor to a Cliff”s 24″ dob. Add Tony’s 14″ dob, Keck support astronomer Hein with the observatory’s 8″ outreach telescope, and myself with the usual 11″ Nexstar I use for outreach. (Thanks guys!!) It was a big crowd, every telescope was in business with lines of folks waiting to see. The event was hosted by a high school, but the students attending this evening were of all ages. The whole family was there to enjoy the night, little brothers and sisters, and mom and dad taking turns at the eyepiece to view.

Kealakehe Star Party
Tony’s 14″ dob with a long line of folks waiting to view, Charlie with his refractor at right
Under clearing skies we had a great selection of stuff to look at… Jupiter is still high enough in the evening sky to observe, Mars is high overhead, and Saturn was rising. Add a first quarter Moon and we had plenty of bright targets. The streetlights of the high school campus were bright, but with bright planets and the Moon to view we had no problems.

As we waited for it to get dark and for the clouds to break, I did my “On-Sky” talk about Keck to a cafeteria with a couple hundred kids and parents. The talk is designed for a general audience, and has improved with repetition. Judging by the non-stop questions it was going over well, giving folks a glimpse into the daily operation of the observatory.

A fun evening, the best sort of astronomy outreach… A crowd of folks enjoying the night, a little education mixed with fun. A chance to explain what we at Keck do to our local community.

The December WHAC Meeting

The West Hawai’i Astronomy Club will hold its December Meeting as usual on the second Tuesday of the month, December 11th at 7pm. We will be unable to have the meeting at CFHT due to conflict with another event, thus we will be meeting at Keck Observatory HQ in Waimea.

As many of our members traveled to observe the recent total solar eclipse in Australia we expect to be treated to photos and travelogues of their expedition. Join us for eclipse photos and more.

A Dark Night

Another new Moon weekend, another observing outing to Mauna Kea. With some shiny new astro equipment to play with I decided to load for photography instead of visual. Disassembling the photographic mount I realized it had not been taken apart in over two years, setup in the garage and used in the driveway. I did not expect to be alone, a few other local observers had indicated plans to get out this night.

Omega Centauri
Omega Centauri, NGC5139, sum of 31 x 1min exposures, AT6RC and Canon 60D
Worry on the drive up, the cloud deck seemed quite high. I was concerned that the Mauna Kea VIS, at 9,200ft, may be in the clouds. With wipers and headlights on, through the heavy fog I drove, not encouraging when you expect to use a telescope. The worry persisted until the last switchback, ascending through the last wisps of cloud just a few hundred feet below the VIS to behold a cloudless blue sky overhead.

As expected the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station was a zoo. A dozen summit tour buses added to a heavy Saturday night crowd. The parking lot was full with even more cars parked along the road. Not a real problem, the tour buses use reserved spaces right in front of the building. They pull out about an hour before sunset, headed for the summit with their customers. We swoop in on the vacated parking spaces and set up our gear.

A trio of telescopes set up for astrophtography at the Mauna Kea VIS
The crowd is an interesting experience. Well over a hundred folks waiting for dark and the evening program. There are the usual issues of headlights and camera flashes. It may not be all that dark for a while, but we gain a nice paved place to setup, and there is electrical power available. The crowd will slowly wane as the night progresses, mostly gone by 9pm, driven off by the cold. At 10pm the VIS closes and the remaining lights are turned off.

In addition to the VIS telescopes, there were quite a few local amateurs taking advantage of a moonless Saturday night. Cliff and Tony brought Cliff’s 24″ Dob, a two person job to move that ‘scope. Wayne brought photography gear. Mike was likewise set up for photography, planets instead of deep sky, using a Flea 3 and an ancient 10″ Celestron. Olivier brought his 19″ Pricilla, providing plenty of glass for visual astronomy while the cameras exposed for hours.

It was Malalo o Ka Po Lani, cultural night at the VIS, with a special lecture. This meant a large crowd, most of whom stayed to enjoy the perfect skies the mountain provided this night. They wandered around the telescopes asking lots of questions. While the photographic ‘scopes did not offer views through the eyepiece, there was still a lot of interest in the process. I chatted with many folks as I worked, fiddling with the complex equipment necessary to take photos of the sky.

It was quite the gathering of Losmandy G-11’s! Wayne brought two, Mike brought one to carry the old 10″ Celestron, I had mine setup for photography with the AT6RC. Add the three that the Mauna Kea VIS uses! A testament to these well-built mounts, some of which are two decades old.

The astrophoto gear was working nicely. There were a few issues to deal with at the beginning of the night, the usual new gear stuff. A few things I need to fix before next time… need to remount the guider so I can co-align it with the imaging ‘scope. I need to mount a real finder, and make it easier to hunt down the targets. But overall I was pleased, the new setup worked as I hoped it would.

SBIG ST-i Autoguider
The SBIG ST-i autoguider mounted to the top of the AT6RC telescope
I will write more about the SBIG ST-i later. The short version… Much easier to use than the ST-4, accurate, painless acquisition of guide stars, it just locked on and stayed there. The only real drawback is the inability to dispense with a computer. I recently re-built one of my older laptops for use as the astrophoto machine. But since the computer is going to be there, I may as well use it, time to integrate the DSLR with the computer and shoot tethered. I have the software, just that I had tried to keep it simple in the field.

Another pleasant surprise was the ease of focusing with the AT6RC with a Bahtinov mask. I have been wondering about the stock focuser on the new ‘scope, how well does it handle the heavy DSLR camera. One lesson is that it locks the focus quite well, I noticed no drift each time I checked focus. Indeed, at one point I pulled out the 60D, swapped the focal reducer and adapter onto the 20Da and checked focus again, it was still perfect.

While my camera took exposure after exposure, I took in the views that big glass can produce. Bouncing back and forth between Cliff 24″ and Olivier’s 19″. No surprise for a spring session, galaxies were in rich supply. We viewed a lot of the showpiece objects, from Ursa Major to Virgo and Corvus.

This night was the type of night we hope for when planning an observing outing… Not too cold, no strong wind, and no clouds. Just a dark sky to delight the imagination all night long.

WHAC Monthly Meeting

The West Hawai’i Astronomy Club Meeting is nearly upon us. As a reminder we will be at CFHT Headquarters this month. We have a guest speaker this month, so it should be a good evening…

Decoding starlight with infrared spectroscopy: Finding water in places where planets might form around new stars
Greg Doppmann, Keck Observatory
7:00pm, Feb 14th

Greg Doppmann is recent transplant to the Big Island, now working at the Keck Observatory as a Support Astronomer. He received his professional training in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to research, Greg was also active in infrared instrumentation for the McDonald Observatory while at Texas. After graduating in 2002, he took a postdoc position at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In 2004, Greg moved down to La Serena Chile and became an instrument scientist at the Gemini Observatory. More recently, he was a member of the scientific staff at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson for 5 years before moving to Hawaii.

His current research interests are focused on star formation, where he uses large telescopes with infrared spectrometers to measure physical properties of young stars that are embedded within nearby star forming clouds. In his spare time he enjoys hiking, cycling, gardening, and flying.

WHAC Visits Gemini and CFHT

There are few opportunities to visit most of the telescopes on Mauna Kea. Only two of the thirteen telescopes maintain any sort of regular public access. Keck opens a viewing gallery during business hours on weekdays and to the MKVIS weekend tours. Subaru provides interior tours, but only with advance reservations. Visiting inside any of the other telescopes is normally not open to the general public, but can be arranged with some work.

Thanks to the work of a few individuals the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club arranged tours of both Gemini and CFHT. Marc Baril was kind enough to arrange the CFHT tour, setting up staff and transportation for the visit. This included a pair of CFHT 4WD vehicles taking folks from Waimea to the summit. Many thanks are owed to Joy Pollard who set up the Gemini portion of the tour. Weekend tours are not normally arranged, but Joy managed to put together the needed staff to allow us to visit the telescope on a Saturday. The result was a couple great tours of these facilities.

Arriving at CFHT
Arriving at a very foggy summit to visit Gemini and CFHT
This marks the second recent summit tour available to members of the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club. Last year we toured the W.M. Keck Observatory. This year CFHT and Gemini allowed us to view a pair of telescope that have helped keep Mauna Kea at the forefront of astronomy for decades.

The weather was pretty awful, winter weather closing in on the summit for the last couple weeks. We arrived at the summit to encounter patchy snow, dense fog and a bitter chill. This would not be an opportunity to enjoy the stunning vistas or sunset that the summit of Mauna Kea is renowned for, we could barely see the next telescope, much less the sunset. At least the road was open to the public and our tour could go on.

We convened in the control room of the Gemini telescope. Here our guides, Joy and Sonny, explained the operation of the telescope and how the operators controlled everything through the night. Our tour of Gemini ran a bit longer than the scheduled hour. During that hour we toured the control room, the coating facility, and the telescope itself.

Gemini Control
Members of the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club listen to guide Sonny Stewart explain the operation of Gemini Observatory
In contrast to many of the other telescopes on the mountain, Gemini is an almost new facility, having seen first light in 1999 and begun science operations in 2000. It is a beautiful telescope, the 8.1 meter instrument sits in a spacious dome. As someone who’s experience has been that a productive environment is always bit messy, the clean facility of Gemini seems a bit odd.

A few levels below the main dome floor is the coating facility. This is where the telescope mirror receives a new reflective surface very few years. For a single piece eight meter primary, a vacuum chamber slightly larger is required. The large chamber makes it seem as if there is a flying saucer docked in the lower bay of the telescope building. The many viewing ports and vacuum lines simply adding to the impression.

The members of the West Hawai’i Astronomy Club pause for a group photo at CFHT
After Gemini it was on the CFHT… The contrasts between the telescopes was dramatic. CFHT is a facility that shows the scars and wear of decades of research. There was an eclectic mix of new equipment intermingled with gear that had been running for over thirty years since the telescope began operations in 1979. This is a facility that started recording observations with photographic plates, along the way making the transition to electronic CCD image sensors. The telescope now boasts one of the world’s largest cameras, the 340 megapixel MegaCam.

Again we visited the coating facility, complete with the massive cranes and the vacuum chamber needed to coat mirrors up to three and a half meters in diameter. This facility is also used by the IRTF and UKIRT observatories to coat the primary mirrors for those telescopes. A treat for me was visiting the OHANA interferometer test lab in the coudé room below the telescope. A project I knew a fair amount about, but had never seen.

The tour finally arrived at the telescope itself. The large equatorial design is such a contrast to the alt-azimuth designs of the more modern designs of Gemini, Subaru and Keck. The enormous steel horseshoe and yoke represent a classic design used for large telescopes throughout the 20th century. We wandered about the dome floor, learning about the details of the telescope, the drives, and the instruments. The AO system was scheduled for the night and was mounted to the telescope. While the massive MegaCam prime focus camera was sitting to the side of the telescope.

The hoped for view of sunset from the upper balcony of the CFHT telescope was nothing to write about. Clouds obscuring all but a hint of sunset’s colors. The final treat was instead an opportunity to ride the rotating dome while the telescope slewed. The show highlighted this big machine, a testament to the people who build and operate these telescopes to push the boundaries of human knowledge deep into the universe.

These tours take a fair amount of work to put together, but are very much worth it. I expect we will do another tour in the spring. Perhaps do a couple of the radio telescopes? CSO, JCMT or SMA? Personally I have never had a chance to properly appreciate the sub-millimeter observatories on the summit. CSO is due to be dismantled in a couple years, it would be a good time to visit this groundbreaking facility.

CFHT Interior
The interior of the CFHT facility atop Mauna Kea