A Little Snow in the Forecast

It was a gorgeous day when we arrived on the summit. A deep blue sky above brilliant white snow covering the slopes. It was difficult to put much faith in a forecast calling for truly dire weather. I could see nothing to the southwest, the direction this weather was approaching from, just the blue Pacific stretching to the horizon.

A little fresh snow on the summit of Mauna Kea
Oh yeah… The car is still there. It is a truly sad sight to see, the car halfway down the slope. Rumor had it that a tow truck was to come up today to remove the vehicle, but the car was still on the slope when we left.

Not a bad day, I accomplished everything on my to-do list for the day. Some work in AO to check for any stray light, removing some old servers to make way for a new system, locating and labeling some optical fibers that are already in place for this same system. Everything went well, except the lunch time cribbage game, I lost badly.

The weather was degrading all day, first the clouds loomed overhead, then they descended as a heavy fog while the temperature dropped. It did indeed begin to look like the forecasts might have a bit of truth. The prediction is for heavy snow, as much as 6-10 inches. Not sure if that will materialize, it would be nice, we have not had any real snowfall this winter. I will just have to check the webcams tomorrow morning.

It was beginning to snow when we pulled out.

Employment at Keck – Adaptive Optics Specialist

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates the world’s two largest optical/infrared telescopes located on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Both telescopes are equipped with AO systems which are routinely used in both Natural and Laser Guide Star (LGS) AO modes. These systems have been extremely productive scientifically. New, more capable, systems are currently in design and development including the implementation of a new laser, new laser launch telescope, near-infrared tip-tilt sensor and a facility to provide simultaneous AO-corrected point spread function estimates to support science data reduction.

AO Bench Work
Working on the Keck 1 AO bench
The AO Specialist will be expected to play a lead role in all phases of the development of new AO capabilities from the concept phase through the design and development, commissioning and handover to operations; as well as in the characterization, optimization and improvement of the existing AO systems. The Specialist will also be expected to help guide the development of the Observatory’s high angular resolution capabilities.
The AO Scientist will also participate in improvements to the existing AO facilities including performance optimization and characterization.

Minimum requirements for this position include: Ph.D. level degree in adaptive optics or high angular resolution astronomy or equivalent experience; three years of relevant experience in the development and/or use of AO for astronomical research; two years of work experience in instrumentation development or operations; a broad understanding of the multiple engineering disciplines needed to develop AO systems; and experience in data visualization and analysis. Desirable qualifications include: a proven track record in the development or optimization of AO systems for astronomy; demonstrated leadership skills; optical, mechanical and controls design and engineering expertise; expertise in the development of the high level software needed to operate and optimize AO systems; and previous Observatory experience.

The following skills are required: Excellent written and oral English communication skills, ability to work independently and as part of a team, strong project and time management skills; ability to set priorities and meet deadlines with flexibility.

This position requires you to submit your resume on-line at: http://keckobservatory.iapplicants.com/ViewJob-324991.html with your cover letter that states why you are uniquely qualified for the position.

Additional information about WMKO and this position may be found on our web site at www.keckobservatory.org

Adaptive Optics Allows Earth-Based Monitoring of Io’s Fiery Show

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Watching active volcanic eruptions should be done from a safe distance, and a group of California researchers has figured out how to do it from, ironically, Mauna Kea – one of Earth’s tallest volcanoes – using the W. M. Keck Observatory. Employing an ingenious combination of telescopic surveys and archival data, they have gathered nearly 40 distinct snapshots of effusive (slow) volcanic eruptions and high temperature outbursts on Jupiter’s tiny moon, Io, showing details as small as 100 km (60 miles) on the moon’s surface.

While space-based telescopes were once required for viewing surface details on Io – similar in size to our Moon, but more than 1,600 times distant – adaptive optics (AO), pioneered at Keck, allows teams like that led by Franck Marchis, a researcher at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, to collect fascinating data on the wild show from Earth. Marchis presented results from ground-based telescopic monitoring of Io’s volcanic activity over the past decade this week, at the 2012 Division of Planetary Sciences Meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Erupting volcanoes on Io cannot be seen well from beneath the Earth’s atmosphere using classical astronomical techniques. Io is a relatively small satellite with a 3,600 km diameter, more than 630 million kilometers away. In 1979, Voyager 1 visited the Jovian system, revealing Io’s dynamic volcanic activity from the first close-up pictures of its surface, capturing bizarre volcanic terrains, active plumes and hot spots. The Galileo spacecraft remained in orbit in the Jovian system from 1995 to 2003 and observed more than 160 active volcanoes and a broad range of eruption styles. Several outstanding questions remained in the post-Galileo era, and the origin and long-term evolution of Io’s volcanic activity is still not fully understood.

IO with Keck AO
Quiescent activity of Io observed in 2010 and 2011 showing several quasi-permanent eruptions at 3.8 microns [bottom] and the absence of bright, hotter outbursts at 2.1 microns [top]. Credit: Franck Marchis, SETI Institute

In the meantime, astronomers designed instruments to break the “seeing barrier” and improve the image quality of ground-based telescopes. The blurring (“seeing”) introduced by the constant motion of the Earth’s atmosphere can be measured and corrected in real time using adaptive optics (AO), providing an image with a resolution close to the theoretical “diffraction limit” of the telescope. The W. M. Keck Observatory has used adaptive optics since 1999.

“Since our first observation of Io in 2001 using the Keck II 10-meter telescope and its AO system from Mauna Kea in Hawaii, our group became very excited about the technology. We also began using AO at the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and at the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The technology has improved over the years, and the image quality and usefulness of these AO systems have made them part of the essential instrument suite for large telescopes,” said Marchis.

Continue reading “Adaptive Optics Allows Earth-Based Monitoring of Io’s Fiery Show”

Keck Observations Reveal Complex Face of Uranus

UC Berkeley press release

The planet Uranus, known since Voyager’s 1986 flyby as a bland, featureless blue-green orb, is beginning to show its face.

By using a new technique with the telescopes of the Keck Observatory, astronomers have created the most richly detailed, highest-resolution images ever taken of the giant ice planet in the near infrared, revealing an incredible array of atmospheric detail and more complex weather.

The planet, in fact, looks like many of the solar system’s other large planets — the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, and the ice giant Neptune — said Imke de Pater, professor and chair of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the team members. The planet has bands of circulating clouds, massive swirling hurricanes and an unusual swarm of convective features at its north pole.

“This ‘popcorn’ appearance of Uranus’s pole reminds me very much of a Cassini image of Saturn’s south pole,” said de Pater.

Uranus with Keck AO
The two faces of Uranus as seen through the adaptive optics on the near-infrared camera of the Keck II telescope in Hawaii. Credit: Lawrence Sromovsky, Pat Fry, Heidi Hammel, Imke de Pater.

Saturn’s south pole is characterized by a polar vortex or hurricane, surrounded by numerous small cloud features that are indicative of strong convection and analogous to the heavily precipitating clouds encircling the eye of terrestrial hurricanes. De Pater’s group suggested that a similar phenomenon would be present on Neptune, based upon Keck observations of that planet.

“Perhaps we will also see a vortex at Uranus’ pole when the pole comes in full view,” she said.

The study was led by Larry Sromovsky, a planetary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In addition to de Pater, other team members are Pat Fry of the University of Wisconsin and Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. The team will report the details of their observations Oct. 17 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nev.

Continue reading “Keck Observations Reveal Complex Face of Uranus”

Postcard from the Summit – Laser Panorama

Assembling panoramas properly is not a trivial exercise. I have been attempting to master a program called Hugin and may have achieved some modest level of competency with it. It is surprising complex, and extraordinary powerful. Even more impressive as it is free software. Properly mastered it allows correction of tip, tilt and yaw in the camera, lens distortion, even translation of the camera’s position in x,y, and z. The task is made even more complex if the scene changes during the sequence, which is inevitable during the fifteen minutes it takes to sweep a moonlit scene on the observatory roof with one minute exposures. The stars move, the telescopes move, while I try not to shiver uncontrollably in the bitter wind.

Laser Panorama
A moonlit panorama from the roof of Keck during a night of laser engineering

Laser Susan

The old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” has a certain truth to it.

In this case the necessity is created by the conditions. Sub-freezing temperatures, bone chilling wind, and the need to be outside under these conditions. The summit of Mauna Kea can be downright miserable for mere human beings. Yet, in order to operate the laser, someone has to watch and insure we do not illuminate some passenger aircraft on the way to Australia.

Thus we have laser spotters, a hardy crew indeed. Braving the conditions, spending hours watching the sky to insure we operate safely. We are attempting to introduce technological solutions to the problem. The FAA however is an extraordinarily conservative organization, rightly so when hundreds of lives are at risk on any given flight. It takes time, many years, to approve another method of insuring safe laser operation.

It is a cold job. I have done it for a few hours, just enough to instill a real respect for the guys who do it all night. You bundle up in many layers of insulation and attempt to get comfortable in a position that allows observation of the area of sky around the beam. Given the heavy clothing it is a pain to simply sweep the sky, and completely reposition each time the telescope changes target.

Given the problem, Doug Macilroy, one of our intrepid Keck crew, saw a solution. It took time, and a number of prototypes to get it right. But he now has a neat way to stay comfortable and warm while scanning the sky. Now we have the “Laser Susan”!

YouTube video for the Laser Susan

Neptune and Triton

Mike Brown did more than give a lecture while in Hawai’i. He just finished a four day observing run using Keck 2 with AO and OSIRIS, as well as gathering data with NIRSPEC. The target? Among other things Mike and his team observed Neptune and the large moon Triton. Triton is thought to be a captured KBO (Kuiper Belt Object). These objects, including well known Pluto, and lesser known, but just as large objects like Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Quaoar, are Mike’s area of expertise.

It is always nice to see a system I help maintain operating well and producing images like this…

Triton and Neptune
A Keck AO / OSIRIS photo of Neptune and the large moon Triton, credit Mike Brown/CalTech