Postcard from the Reef – Guard Crab

Most divers do nothing during their safety stop, I have some trouble doing that. Hanging in the water fifteen feet below the surface for five minutes is sometimes pleasant, sometimes boring.

Also hanging fifteen feet down is the mooring ball, a buoy holding a steel cable near the surface so the dive boats can avoid dropping anchor on the reef. I have made a habit of checking out the growth on the mooring ball and line during my safety stop. I have found hydroids, wire coral gobies, even corals growing here, no real estate goes unclaimed around the reef.

A set of cauliflower corals were growing on this cable, complete with the usual community of critters that find shelter in the branches. Even more convenient, I could rotate the coral colony simply by twisting the cable to which it was attached, giving me a chance for a better photo of a guard crab…

Common Guard Crab
Common guard crab (Trapezia intermedia) in a small cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina) growing on a mooring buoy cable.

Postcard from the Summit – Blinking Lights

Walking through the room I somehow fail to notice just how much equipment is there. At night, with the lights off, the sheer quantity of LED’s and other indicator lights underscore the number of servers and other equipment the room contains. Every direction you look, the room is filled with equipment… The telescope control computer, network switches, terminal servers, instrument servers, the ACS controller and the telescope drive system itself. All necessary to keeping the telescope on-sky…

Keck 2 Computer Room
Servers of the K2 Computer Room at night

Mauna Kea Panorama

I have so many photos sitting on the hard drive, projects and ideas that remain un-realized. But every now and then I get around to completing one of those ideas and putting together something worth the effort. A couple winters ago I had an opportunity to shoot an entire 360° panorama from the top of Keck 2. I had set the camera on top of a toolbox and took photos steadily as the dome was moved through one complete rotation. A couple other photos were also taken that I could stitch into the result. The whole project made possible with the panorama features of Photoshop CS5. Twenty images were used to make the pano, resulting in a 105Mb image 26,000 pixels wide. The image shown here is downsized slightly…


It was a great day, on top of the dome after a heavy snowfall, simply stunningly beautiful. Hard work as well, shoveling snow and chipping ice off the dome at nearly fourteen thousand feet. The fellows in the image are Bill Bates (top) and Mike Dahler (below), some of the great guys who keep Keck on-sky. Bill has since retired and is sorely missed on the summit.

Atop the Weather Mast

I got lucky.

Weather Mast
The author working on the Keck weather mast
I had expected it to be a day of 20mph winds and freezing temperatures. What I got was a balmy 11°C (52°F) and just a gentle breeze. All for the good as I planned to spend several hours hanging off the weather mast installing wiring to improve the new dew point sensor. A cold wind can quickly turn the roof of the observatory into a miserable place.

The original sensor housing had proved to be vulnerable to heavy icing. The new housing should be more resilient, as well as providing better daytime temperature readings. This is due to changing to a different shelter design that uses a fan to move air through the housing past the sensor. I also modified the housing with the addition of a heating element to allow de-icing.

Weather mast covered with several inches of ice
The Keck weather mast covered with several inches of ice
To make the heating element I needed heavy nichrome wire. Not having any on hand I took a trip to the thrift shop. There I bought a used toaster for a couple dollars and spent an hour dismantling the toaster to remove the heating elements. I took the wire and wrapped it through the interior of the instrument housing, creating a heating element that should work quite nicely with a 12V supply, gently warming the housing and melting any ice.

A beautiful day on the summit, nice to spend a few hours atop the roof, hanging in a safety harness from the weather mast. I even remembered to put on some sunscreen to avoid frying in the high altitude sunlight. A new cable pulled through the conduit, the instrument shelter replaced, a little further wiring inside and the job was done. I will have to await another round of bad weather to see if the changes work, but given the trend this winter, I will not have to wait long.

Postcard from the Reef – Dragon Moray

One of the rarer, but very impressive, moray eels of the Hawaiian Islands is the Dragon Moray. This is my first decent sighting of one. Decent meaning I did not see the last bit disappearing into the coral, and actually saw the head for more than a glimpse.

He was staying well out of harm’s way with noisy divers about, deep in an antler coral head. The location also made the eel fairly difficult to photograph. I used my usual in-coral-head technique… zoom in, pray for focus, and nuke the coral head with light.

Dragon Moray
A Dragon Moray (Enchelycore pardalis) in a coral head at 40ft depth, Suck ‘Em Up Cavern, Kona

Postcard from the Summit – IR IRTF

A somewhat different picture of the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. Appropriately enough this image of an IR telescope was taken with an IR camera by Mark Devenot, a fellow engineer and photographer in the Keck Operations Department.

Since this is a thermal infrared image, the colors map directly to temperature. In this image the warm asphalt of the road glows bright yellow and the cold patches of snow a cool aqua. Note how well the telescope building and dome are designed, emitting very little infrared, a good feature for an infrared telescope.

The IR camera in question is fairly low resolution, a mere 256×256 pixels, fairly typical in handheld IR cameras. Mark found a way to make an impressive image even with the low pixel count by using some of the artistic filters in Photoshop to process the image. I saw the image and had to share it with my DarkerView readers…

NASA IRTF in an in a thermal infrared image taken with a FLIR PM250 camera, with artist effects added in photoshop, image by Mark Devenot

Merry Christmas… I think.

On-Call… No prob, a quiet holiday weekend so far.

Until the phone rings… The caller ID shows K1 Control.

Noooo!! It is Christmas Day!

What is wrong now? Time? 4 pm, daycrew should be doing final checks before releasing the telescope, just the time things usually go wrong. ACS?!? It has been creating a lot of trouble lately. Autofill? My usual problem child… No, I checked that already today. HIRES? Tonight’s instrument that I really know nothing about. Nothing to do but answer the phone…

Just Robert calling to say everything is fine and Merry Christmas.

Thanks Robert… I think.

Sheep Strike

This time I didn’t miss.

I am actually rather surprised it had not happened to me before. Given the number of times I have dodged animals along Saddle Road. Pigs, sheep, mongoose, feral cats, francolins, quail… I had hit a turkey a few years back, but this was my first encounter with a larger animal.

I really prefer to avoid killing, but luck was not with me or the poor mouflon sheep this time.

It came into the headlights from the side at a full run, I had no real chance of avoiding the collision. Fortunately it did not hit square on, as it was a fairly big ram. It struck a glancing blow under the passenger side headlight, with a dull thud I can still remember vividly.

Sheep Strike
Damage on the front quarter of a Ford Explorer due to a Mouflon Sheep
The results were pretty ugly, bits of sheep across the road, blood and guts sprayed down the side of the vehicle. What was left of the unfortunate ram was left wrapped around a fencepost, thrown well clear of the collision. Yes, I have a photo. No, I am not posting it here. It is rather gory.

I did have one bit of luck, there was no critical damage, allowing me to continue on to headquarters in the middle of the night. I was a bit concerned when I found fluid leaking from under the vehicle, but it didn’t look yellow enough to be antifreeze. Further inspection showed it to be wiper fluid, the reservoir is just above the wheel and had taken a hit. In my flashlight beam it was slowly draining onto the road.

I inspected the tire, the brake line and everything else in the impact zone before continuing my journey. As I pulled out there was a chime and a message in the dash… “Wiper Fluid Low”… as if I was worried about wiper fluid!

Mike, our company mechanic, places the damage at about $4k in a quick guess. I suspect he is about right. Given the size of the ram and the speed I am really surprised it was not worse. I did do Mike a favor, I hosed the vehicle down before leaving it parked it in front of our little shop. With the contents of the sheep all down the side, it was pretty rank!

I always feel bad about killing a wild animal like this. My only solace is that feral mouflon are a species that represent a problem, with a population that is growing to the point it is damaging the mountain. I recall a few years ago when sighting sheep was a rare occurrence along Saddle Road, for the last year it has been difficult not to see them, with large herds a common sight.

I am not the first to hit a sheep in an observatory vehicle lately. This will not save me from the inevitable ribbing I will receive. There will be jokes, and I will just have to laugh along.

Postcard from the Universe – 103P/Hartley 2

I am waiting for the Moon to leave the evening sky before shooting the comet again. In the meantime I am processing more of the material obtained earlier in the month. In this case a photo of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 taken October 6th with Keck 2 and DEIMOS. The image marks the first time I have attempted to take and process an image with a 10m telescope. Just a wee bit larger than the 76mm refractor I usually use to take astrophotos!

The image is notable for its complete lack of any interesting structure. There are no jets, shells or other inner coma detail visible. The tail is simply a general brightening to the southwest (lower right in this image).

The comet is moving very quickly across the sky, even more so with the high magnification lent by a large telescope. Even short exposures turn the stars into long streaks. In this case multicolor streaks as the camera cycles through the filters needed for a color image.

103P/Hartley 2
Comet 103P Hartley 2 with Keck2 and DEIMOS 6Oct2010 @ 7:27UT, 3x60s, 3x60s and 3x120s with standard BVR astrometric filters, credit: Cooper/Wirth/W.M. Keck Observatory