Broken, Now Fixed

It is always a good day when I drive up the mountain to a broken telescope, then drive down leaving a working telescope. Easy to say, not always easy to accomplish, the simple statement obscuring a day of struggle to solve the problem and fix it.

Smoked Relay
A relay with a blown out coil from the Keck 2 telescope drive
Such a day was Monday.

The Keck 2 telescope drive is a complex beast of dozens of relays, miles of cabling, servo amplifiers and power supplies, plus several circuit boards designed and built in the 1980’s holding a bewildering array of arcane logic.

Continue reading “Broken, Now Fixed”

Working the Weather

One of the little side jobs I have gotten assigned at Keck is updating the weather station. This involves replacing all of the weather monitoring equipment that allows the operators to keep an eye on conditions around the telescopes. This gear is absolutely critical, giving the operators the data they need to protect our equipment, including the irreplaceable mirrors.

Keck Weather Mast
The weather mast atop the Keck observatory building
As a side job it has been fun. A simple job that can be completed with a minimum of complications and the usual folderol that surrounds larger engineering projects. Just come up with a plan, put some numbers on the plan, buy the gear and install it. As budget has allowed I have worked my way through the plan, replacing bits of gear one item at a time.

It has been fun to learn about measuring temperature, humidity, dew point and more. It seems so simple at first, but the complications of getting a good reading are subtle. Passive instrument shelters, active ventilation, instrument positioning, calibration and more. Issues that can make a good instrument give bad data.

Barometric Sensor
A barometric sensor installed in the Keck weather mast
Likewise the severity of the weather at the 13,600ft elevation of the observatory is a real challenge. How do you get a good reading in 70mph blowing snow? What do you do about 8 inches of ice that has formed over every vertical surface. That one was a challenge, the first shelter I put up for the temperature and humidity partially collapsed under the weight of the ice on the sensor cables.

Last week I installed a new barometric sensor. This was the last part of the existing weather instrument suite that needed to be replaced. I got lucky, it was a great day on the summit, sunny with just a modest breeze. Just the day to spend a couple hours hanging off the weather mast in a climbing harness rewiring a junction box for the new cables. A few holes to drill, a few bolts, a couple cables… done!

My next item is to install an anemometer. We have not had an operational anemometer in many years and our observing staff has made it abundantly clear that they want an anemometer. Not that this one will be easy, it is a bit of a challenge to get a decent wind reading anywhere near a 100ft diameter dome. This challenge will be a bit more involved, and involve some good engineering fun. Time to learn about measuring wind-speed and how to do it right. Looking forward to the next part of the plan!

Science Fair Season

School science fair season is here! As an engineer, it is wonderful to see school kids doing science and engineering tasks. I enjoy going to see what the students have come up with and giving a little of my time to support science and engineering education.

Science Fair
Students from Parker School participate in science fair
In the past two weeks I have served as a judge for two science fairs, Parker School and Kanu o ka ‘Āina. Parker is a private school in Waimea with a well deserved reputation for excellence. Kanu is a charter school with a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture. Both schools make a special effort with science fairs, expecting their students to participate and go on to the county and state wide competitions.

As usual, the projects are quite the mix. Some projects are simply the usual stuff, variations on the standard projects one can find posted to the internet, standard fodder for science fairs nationwide. Not that I totally disapprove of these common projects, students can gain valuable experience when performing any good experiment, even one done many times before. It is all in the execution.

One difference you really find here in Hawai’i, is a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture and special problems unique to the islands. This leads to unique experiments that address local issues. Propagation of native plants, alternative energy, permaculture, issues that have a direct connection with island life. Some student explore aspects of native Hawaiian technology. I was particularly impressed by experiments in traditional dye mordants examining the effectiveness and permanency of various mordants with tumeric dye and cotton cloth.

The results are likewise quite the mixture. Experiments that result in good success, to others that do not fair so well. Looking at a growth chart with all zeros in the data table I was forced to ask… “did the plants just not grow?” …”They all died.” Still, failures can be just as good learning experiences as success, sometimes better. I am always impressed by a student who admits failure and can explain what went wrong.

Some of the students I graded will go on to the regional competitions, I expect some will do quite well. Good luck!

Employment at Keck – Engineering Project Manager

W. M. Keck Observatory position announcement

Project Manager/Engineer

The W.M. Keck Observatory seeks a Project Manager/Engineer to work under the general supervision of the Deputy Director and in close collaboration with the Principal Engineer to manage activities for a major optics renewal program. Be part of a challenging, fast-paced, technical environment where ability, leadership, teamwork, communication and interpersonal skills are highly prized. This is a regular position with future assignments to other exciting optics development programs.

A Keck mirror segment after stripping and cleaning, ready to place in the chamber to receive a new reflective coating
The Observatory operates two of the largest, most scientifically productive optical/infrared telescopes in the world. The twin 10-meter telescopes are located at one of the premier sites for astronomy, set amidst several other world class observatories at the 14,000 foot summit of Mauna Kea, on the spectacular Big Island of Hawaii. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to join a highly skilled, innovative and deeply committed team of professionals who excel at enabling the most exciting and important astronomical discoveries in the world.

The successful candidate will need to exhibit leadership ability, very strong communication and inter-personal skills and a strong personal commitment to the success of the program.

The principal activities of this position will be:

  1. Project planning, tracking, reporting and proactive management of schedule, budget, risk and contingency
  2. Responsibility for requests for proposal, vendor selection, contract negotiation and contract management
  3. Obtaining staff resources for project
  4. Managing the overall logistics to ensure smooth and effective workflow
  5. Development of quality assurance plans
  6. During the production phase: management and technical responsibility for the renewal program

Subsequent assignments may involve significant technical leadership along with project management activities.

Minimum qualifications for this position include:

  1. Bachelor’s degree in Optics Engineering, or other engineering or physical sciences degree with experience of optics, materials science, physics, or mechanical engineering, and at least 5 years of optical systems design and implementation experience
  2. At least 5 years of significant project management experience in managing projects of $5M or greater. Experience must include devising budgets, schedules and contingency, critical path analysis, risk identification and mitigation, and project tracking and reporting
  3. 5 years of experience in managing contracts, including generating and managing requests for proposal and statements of work, vendor selection, contract negotiation and contract management
  4. Staff supervisory experience

Highly desirable qualifications include

  1. An advanced degree: a master’s or doctorate in a relevant discipline
  2. Experience dealing with optical component vendors
  3. Experience in devising and running quality assurance programs
  4. Familiarity with general mechanical engineering analysis techniques, ideally including experience in finite element analysis and fracture mechanics
  5. Experience with Zemax
  6. Experience in handling large optics (~2m diameter)
  7. Experience in specifying, measuring and aligning optics
  8. Experience in devising efficient information management systems for bulk technical data

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 website at EEO Employer