The Keck Adaptive Optics systems are workhorse scientific instruments. Equipment that has resulted in so many great astronomical discoveries. The AO systems have also seen a great deal of improvements and upgrades through the years. New computers, a new wave-front controller, guide star lasers added, new cameras, different science instruments, and much more.

A pile of electronic cruft removed from the Keck 2 AO enclosure.
While the new gear has improved the systems dramatically, the result is that there is a fair amount of disused bit and pieces hanging about. Mostly cabling, but more than a few unused boxes of electronic gear are still sitting in place in the racks.

Eventually I just get fed up with it and insist we spend some time getting rid of it. With no AO use scheduled for a while there is a chance to spend a couple days ripping out this pile of cruft. Identifying and removing unused boxes. Following cables to nowhere, wire cutters in hand to snip away the multitude of nylon zip-ties.

We remove three large armloads of cables and other gear, carring the pile down to the electronics lab for sorting through and disposal. Most of it is horribly obsolete, things like KVM’s for PS/2 style mice and keyboards, or cables for old Sun computers. Most of it will simply be thrown out. It feels so good to get it out of AO and to clean up the place a little.

I called this pile of junk cruft, a word that drew funny looks from my co-workers. You don’t know what cruft is? What sort of nerds are you? Sorry, cruft is what I have always called leftover technical junk.

Cruft is jargon for anything that is left over, redundant and getting in the way. It is used particularly for superseded and unused technical and electronic hardware and useless, superfluous or dysfunctional elements in computer software. – Wikipedia

It turns out that the word has a long history in engineering and computer science with a heritage that includes MIT and Harvard. It is indeed the proper word for the detritus that had been accumulating in the AO vault.

NPR Segment on Keck Adaptive Optics

A nice NPR piece on Keck AO today. A decent discussion of the history and advantages of adaptive optics.

For Sharpest Views, Scope The Sky With Quick-Change Mirrors

It used to be that if astronomers wanted to get rid of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, they had to put their telescopes in space. But a technology called adaptive optics has changed all that.

Always a good thing when a system I put so much of my life into receives some good press!

AO Uranus
Uranus in two different wavelength, with and without the AO system on, credit Hammel/de Pater/Keck

Keck Observatory Completes $4 Million Adaptive Optics Fund

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

The W. M. Keck Observatory has successfully completed a $4 million campaign that will give astronomers the most detailed Adaptive Optics images of the cosmos ever created by mankind. Furthermore, the campaign was funded entirely by private philanthropy.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation and The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation awarded three grants totaling $3.7 million to significantly upgrade the Keck II Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics (LGS AO) system. The balance of the campaign came from individual gifts from Friends of the Keck Observatory.

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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: 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

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.

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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.

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Private Foundations Fund New Astronomy Tool

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

The W. M. Keck Observatory has been awarded two major grants to help build a $4 million laser system as the next leap forward in a technology which already enables ground-based telescopes to exceed the observational power of telescopes in space. The new laser, when installed on the current adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope, will improve the performance of the system and advance future technology initiatives.

First Target of the Night
The Keck 2 AO Laser attempting the first target of the night with the light of sunset and a setting Moon behind
In early July the Observatory received a $1.5 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, adding to a $2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded eight months prior for the multi-year project. Keck Observatory is charged to raise the remaining funds needed from its private supporters over the next two years.

“Ever since Galileo, astronomers have been building bigger telescopes to collect more light to be able to observe more distant objects,” said Peter Wizinowich, who leads the adaptive optics developments at Keck Observatory. “In theory, the larger the telescope the more detail you can see. However, because of the blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere, a 10-inch or a 10-meter telescope see about the same amount of detail.”

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