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”

Hawai‘i’s Sea Creatures

While the fish are often spectacular on the reef, it is the invertebrates that are often the most fascinating creatures to be found. Life in the sea allows for a bewildering array of body shapes and lifestyles. The creatures found by divers will often be things that stretch the imagination. The unexpected is common and the observant diver will find life forms both beautiful and horrifying.

Hoover's Hawai‘i's Sea Creatures
The cover of Hoover’s Hawai‘i’s Sea Creatures
The guide to invertebrates on the reef is Hawai‘i’s Sea Creatures, by John Hoover. Written for the non-professional there are over 500 species presented, all with excellent photographs. Each species is resented with a short paragraph or two summarizing what is known about the creature. To supplement the books, the author maintains a website with updates that can be checked when the book fails.

For someone like myself who spends much of a dive looking for the small creatures that most divers overlook this book is incredibly useful. I received the latest edition under the Christmas tree and it is often the first book I reach for after returning from a dive.

I have come across a few species not in the book. But the book will at least get you close, there will be something similar allowing you to identify the family or maybe the genus that your unknown critter belongs in. For anyone diving in Hawai‘i, this is one book that is indispensable.

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

Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin

The clouds have not been kind to those of use hoping to observe a comet here in Hawai’i. Last night Deb and I were at the Mauna Kea VIS, volunteering with the evening stargazing. I had hoped to get a good look at the comet from a dark site. But the clouds kept me from seeing the comet at all. A few people did get a look when a hole in the clouds allowed a glimpse, but by the time I got to an eyepiece the clouds had again closed over Leo, obscuring the view.

I did get a few hours of decent skies a few nights ago from the driveway in Waikoloa. I took advantage of that time to get twenty four minute exposures with the Canon 20Da and forty exposures with the CCD camera. Unfortunately the streetlights precluded my getting a decent visual view. The camera did a bit better, revealing some interesting structure to the tail.

Processing the image proved to be quite a challenge. The comet is moving very fast against the background stars. Aligning the images on the stars turns the comet into a long blur, likewise aligning the images on the comet creates streaks in place of stars. The answer is to process the image both ways and add the two resulting frames together as layers in Photoshop. This is the first time I had attempted this process and the results are reasonable…

C/2007N3 Lulin
Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin on the morning of 22 Feb 2009

Comet 144P Kushida

I took advantage of a clear evening to do a little more driveway astrophotography. The target was comet 144P Kushida. The comet is nearly at the Zenith in the evening, very conveniently placed with ample time to take more than a few frames.

The setup was fairly typical for me, the Canon 20Da and the TV-76 shooting for over 40 minutes (10 frames at 4 min each). The frames were calibrated and stacked in Images Plus and post proccessed with Photoshop and FITS Liberator. I followed Jerry Lodgriss’ instructions for preserving and enhancing the star colors with pleasing results. I suspect I will be using this technique more in the future and star colors are something that has always frustrated me.

Comet 144P Kushida, 20 x 2min exposures w/180mm lens @ f2.8 and IDAS LP Filter, 15 Feb 2009
Since I have a CCD camera co-boresighted with the TV-76mm refractor I was able to use the CCD to take frames simultaneously. This arrangement is convenient as I can use the CCD for finding and framing the target, the field of view is very similar between the two cameras. I spent time early in the evening to carefully align the CCD to match the view in the refractor. There is also a small 10cm SCT in the setup for use as a autoguider scope, but I have not been using this lately. I suspect I will try some longer exposures of C/2007 N3 Lulin in a few days and will need the guider.

The comet itself was fairly straightforward, a round coma with no real tail, a slight off centered shape to the coma. The cyanogen green comes through nicely, very apparent when processing the color planes separately. It is moving fairly slowly, for the DSLR photo I aligned on the stars and only had slight issues with the comet trailing. For the CCD image I aligned the images on the comet, showing some trailing in the stars.

The CCD frames do not show any sign of a tail or other structure either. This is not surprising as 144P Kushida is usually a fairly dim comet that is bright only due to material from an outburst a couple months ago. It is not a highly active comet with jets, tail and all of the other features that can make comet photography so interesting.

Comet 144P Kushida passing through heavy starfield in Taurus on the evening of 15 Feb 2009, stack of 10 x 4min exposures with a Canon 20Da and TV-76mm