2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Learning Through Discovery

On 2012 August 31, the IAU resolved to define the AU as exactly 149,597,870,700 meters. Of course, they didn’t just pull that value out of a hat. I take it as a statement that measurements have converged enough that any variation is in the noise.

When you see such a precise value being entered into reference books, it’s easy to forget that 250 years ago, determining the AU was goal that triggered a massive international effort. Andrea Wulf, in her wonderful book Chasing Venus, tells some of the incredibly complex history of the 1761/1769 Transit of Venus expeditions.

There was some scientific interest in the 2012 Transit of Venus, but it certainly wasn’t in determining the value of the AU. Despite that, there are still good reasons to calculate the astronomical unit from measurements from June’s Transit. There’s tremendous education value in reducing the data. The math is straightforward, and crunching the numbers doesn’t require the head-wrecking tedium endured by human computers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Working through the process is the entire point.


Combined images taken simultaneously (06 June 2012, 03:46:18 UTC) from Svalbard and Canberra, showing the Venus parallax effect from 2 different locations on Earth, separated by 11600km. Credit: Pérez Ayúcar/Breitfellner

This image, from an article in Universe Today, gives you an idea just how fiddly the AU calculation would be. This composite shows the effects of a large baseline, and yet the parallax is still small. Thanks to modern GPS receivers, the station positions can be measured precisely. With exquisite optics so easily available, none of us had to suffer through the black drop nightmares that plagued explorers like Captain James Cook. Even so, there’s still some uncertainty in calling the exact moments of Second and Third Contacts.

A recently published article describes the efforts of Team Hetu’u to use the 2012 Transit of Venus results to work out the Earth’s distance from the Sun. (“Hetu’u” is the rapanui word for “star,” a rather appropriate name for an effort centered on Easter Island.) A world-wide group of students sifted through the data, crunched the numbers and came up with the value of 152 million kilometers, ±30 million kilometers. Compared to the high-precision value adopted by the IAU, this might not seem very impressive. But, I’ll point out that the now-accepted value is well within the calculation’s error margin. These students did a remarkable job!

So — Bravo to Team Hetu’u!

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Curiosity is on Mars!

Well, of course, Curiosity would on Mars in any event. But it’s down, it’s alive, and it seems to be in the right location. The 14 minute delay period was quite intense! I knew the lander was down, but the signals that revealed its fate were still in transit. It’s a big freakin’ solar system out there!

Just to add to the fun, we’ve even got a shot of Curiosity on its way down to the surface.


That’s The Mars Reconnaissance Orbit caught this view of Curiosity dangling from its parachute. (Image courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech/University of Arizona)

On a completely different note, don’t forget the upcoming Perseids. There have been a few early Persieds this year, so keep  your eyes peeled.


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Rooting for Curiosity

Yup, double entendre intended! I’ve always been a curious fellow, but right at the moment, I’m referring to the Mars Science Laboratory. Very soon, we’ll find out how Curiosity did during our seven minutes of white-knuckled nerves.

Gale Crater, Curiosity’s target area, has been on Mars landing site catalogs for many years. It’s in an interesting area on Mars, and not just for the much-ballyhooed “find signs of life” stuff. The geology (never mind giving me a hard time about that word) is complex. Being near the equator, there’s plenty of sunlight and temperature differences to make

Gale Crater, Mars

Simulated image of Mars with Gale Crater near the terminator. (Image courtesy NASA-JPL/CalTech)

all kinds of surface phenomena possible. Incidentally, this location is quite close to Gusev Crater, where the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit gave us so many years of remarkable service.

Getting a spacecraft to Mars is a difficult task. Getting a lander safely to the surface of Mars is even more difficult.  Curiosity’s landing challenge is going to the toughest challenge ever faced by a spacecraft. There’s no guarantee in the space flight business. On second thought, there is one. I can guarantee that the people who’ve worked on this project have poured a good bit of their lives into it. Their mechanical progeny has already returned a great deal of data, so they can take great pride in what they’ve already achieved.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve worked in aerospace, and I never worked on a project as intricate and momentous as the Mars Science Laboratory. (Not even close!) But — I had enough time in the business to have an idea how edgy a lot of people are right now.

Why not join me (in concept, that is!)  on Monday, 2012 August 06, 0530 UTC (1:30 am EDT? Raise a cheer for the people who’ve invested so much into this mission, regardless what happens. Raise a louder cheer if all goes well!


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Stories of the Transit

Amazing! It’s coming up on two months since the Transit of Venus.  More reports of Transit observations are coming out, including one of the first professional reports I’ve seen. Early results for the Venus Twilight Experiment have recently been released.  Some of this work will help with work on exoplanets — not just discovering them, but learning about their characteristics. And, just for fun, some of the images are just spectacular!

Here’s a wonderful video that showcases the Transit of Venus as seen by Jay Pasachoff’s Venus  Twilight Experiment observation team on Haleakala. That was about 120 kilometers from our observing sites on Mauna Kea. (Damn! I forgot to wave! 🙂 )

Haleakala, Maui’s highest point (10,023 feet), peeks through the cloud deck.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has been compiling reports of public Transit observing events. Tens of thousands of people came out to observe the Transit of Venus. For many of them, it would have been their first astronomical event. I’m hoping it won’t be their last. True, skywatching is not everyone’s passion, but I think most people enjoy a few hours under the stars.

Three photos giving a quick look at the 2012 Transit of Venus

You might want to take a look at some of the RASC’s Transit stories. There are a lot of images, ranging from the gorgeous to the amusing.

Posted in Public Outreach, Transit of Venus | Tagged , , ,

Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Visiting Gemini North

2012 June 08 – My visit to the Gemini North observatory added a new dimension to my trip. For this, my fourth visit to Mauna Kea’s summit, I’d have to drive to the summit myself. (You can see the photos of the drive here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, trying to drive a regular rental car to the summit is a very bad idea. For this trip, I rented a big four-wheel drive truck from the only outfit on the Big Island that will let you drive up Mauna Kea. This rental company seems to have interesting clientele. I asked about a clause on special cleaning charges. “Oh, that,” said the counter clerk. “You don’t have to worry about that. We charge extra for things like blood on the upholstery.” My face must have looked rather odd, because she quickly added, “Sometimes hunters put stuff on the seats!”

Glad we got that one sorted out!

A colorful young woman briefed me on using the four-wheel drive selector without spewing bits of transmission over the ground. “Ooh!” said my instructor. “You’re getting my ‘boy truck!’ Good and loud!”

This scene was getting familiar!

After fastening my GoPro camera to the windshield, I headed out of Hilo in a pickup truck that seemed the approximate size of a small tank. The day before, the drive to the VIS had put a strain on my placid rental car. Not with Boy Truck. Even in two-wheel drive, it breezed up the winding road without moving the temperature gauge even fraction of a millimeter. Fortunately, the fuel gauge hadn’t moved much, either. I’d imagined I could hear air whistling into the emptying gas tank. I guess “boy trucks” get better gas mileage these days.

With plenty of time to meet my guide, I took the opportunity to explore the area around the VIS. Three previous trips had made a difference, and I had more than enough energy to go for a short hike. Here are a few photos.

I was to meet Joy Pollard, my Gemini guide, at Hale Pohaku for lunch. That’s a name with a lot of different interpretations, depending on who you ask.  The official documentation suggests that the name applies to the entire Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Most people who’ve been on the mountain before seem to use the term to mean the staff quarters, and possibly just the main building.

It seems the term dates to long before astronomers set up shop on the summit. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built several cottages (huts, by some accounts) near the present location of the VIS. Hunters and hikers used the “stone houses” while traveling on Mauna Kea.

The view downhill from the dining hall’s lanai.

Whatever name you care to use, there’s a complex of modest buildings for observatory staff and visiting workers. The main building is a combination of offices, lounge, recreation room, and dining hall. It’s a simple building, with the comfortable, slightly worn feel of a university commons.

The dining hall fit in perfectly with that general impression. The food was basic, but well prepared with good ingredients. The Gemini outreach office had asked me to pay for lunch, but $11 for an excellent beef stew, very good coffee and premium ice cream was a pretty good deal.

Joy Pollard, a Gemini outreach officer, guided me through the observatory.

Over lunch, Joy went over the plan for the afternoon and gave me a thick packet of background information on the Gemini Observatories.  She led the way in her own vehicle, while I followed in Boy Truck.

Having traveled the summit road before as a passenger made it a lot easier for me to negotiate the twisting mountain road to the summit. It’s a tricky road, and a rough one. The switchbacks can leave you awfully close to some serious drops. If you weren’t careful, you could end up with a situation that would likely result in that special cleaning charge back at the rental office.

As we worked our way up the mountain, Boy Truck had to work harder. Without a supercharger, engine power drops steadily as the air gets thinner.  There were some steep sections where Boy Truck’s engine was howling away at 4500 RPM while it crept ahead at 20 to 25 mph.  The road builders did a pretty good job, though. After each steep section, there was a flat stretch where you could gear up and let the engine cool down a bit.

John A. Burns Way eats cars!

There were plenty of warnings and signs at the VIS advising visitors to use only four-wheel drive vehicles on the road to the summit. Of course, that didn’t make a damned bit of difference. We worked our way around several cars that succumbed to the altitude and the grade. There was a vague odor of scorched something-or-other around this dreary scene.

A bit before the Mile 5.0 marker, John A. Burns Way becomes a paved road. It’s still steep, but at least the drive is smoother. That’s when I noticed how tense my arms had gotten. Boy Truck didn’t have power steering, and muscling it along the rough road made for a fair upper-body workout.

The high summit ridge, with Gemini North on the right. Just ahead, the tops of Subaru, Keck I, Keck II, and NASA IRTF. The long, thin shape in the distance (just behind IRTF) is Haleakala. At 10,023 feet, it’s Maui’s highest mountain.

Not that it mattered much, because very soon, the first observatories came into view. If that sight doesn’t make your heart beat a little faster— well, why would you bother with this drive? One more spectacular switchback (this time with guardrails!), and we were on the high summit ridge. (Check out the whole drive here.)

After cautiously parking Boy Truck, I joined Joy in the Gemini North lobby. We checked in,  put on  our hardhats and went out onto the telescope floor.

This enormous blue structure is the base of the Gemini North telescope. The blue struts hold the altitude bearings; the entire structure rotates in azimuth.

The contrast to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope floor was remarkable. Even though the Gemini telescope has more than twice the aperture, the size difference wasn’t immediately obvious. For one thing, the Gemini dome is enormous, even in proportion to the telescope. What struck me was the difference in design philosophy.

CFHT seems like a slender version of the Hale Telescope: a truss-work tube holding a big prime-focus assembly, all nestled inside a massive yoke.  The Gemini telescope is somewhat reminiscent of a big Dobsonian: there’s a big rocker box on a rotating azimuth plate. With its stolid bulk, telescope’s base makes the lattice-work superstructure seem delicate. The secondary mirror holder, suspended high over the primary, seems tiny.

When you pause for a moment and consider the size of the seemingly tiny secondary, the Gemini telescope’s scale hits you. The secondary mirror is a meter across — the same as the aperture of the world’s biggest refractor at Yerkes Observatory. In any case, the secondary mirror isn’t precisely visible. The almost perfectly reflective surface plays tricks with your eyes.

Just looking up from the telescope floor, the secondary mirror assembly fascinates. As you move around, the reflections shift. The image of the pitch black baffle tube makes the hyperboloid surface look like a shiny doughnut.

The secondary mirror’s surreal image of the covered primary.

When I zoomed my camera in for a close-up shot of the secondary, what appeared in my viewfinder looked like a Salvador Dali painting. This photograph doesn’t quite do justice to the viewfinder image. With the secondary mirror almost filling the field of view, it seemed as though abstract geometric shapes where hanging in mid-air, shifting as the camera moved. The pitch black circle in the center looked like a hole passing right through the secondary assembly. That’s an illusion that actually does come across in this photo.

We left the telescope floor for the mirror coating facility. Unlike many modern observatories, the Gemini Observatories coat their mirrors with silver instead of aluminum. It’s a technically complex process. A layer of nickel acts as a primer coat for the silver, and a surface layer of silica protects the silver from oxidization.  Silver is considerably more reflective than aluminum, particularly for infrared wavelengths.  An article I read recently suggests that the silver coated 8.1 meter mirror has the effective light grasp of an aluminum coated 11 meter mirror. I don’t know how valid those numbers are, but they don’t seem unreasonable.

An elaborate cable routing system prevents snarls as the telescope rotates.

Over lunch, I’d told Joy I’d been an engineer in my bushy-haired youth. I was Joy’s only guest that afternoon, so she led me into obscure spots that she didn’t always visit. I called it the “geek-peek” special tour.

I don’t imagine that many people would have shared my enthusiasm for the cable wrapping room below the telescope. But think about it! How do you route dozens of cables to a rotating telescope without snarling them?  Optics and image sensors get the attention, but none of that is worth a damn if you can’t keep the telescope from wrapping itself into a Gordian Knot of tangled cables.

Exploring obscure places means climbing the odd ladder. I wasn’t having much trouble with the altitude, but at 13,700 feet, even climbing a short ladder leaves you puffing at the top. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to do construction work at the summit.

Here’s a panoramic view of the Gemini North control room.

Our last stop on the tour was the Gemini North control room. It’s a modern facility, arrayed with digital monitors. There isn’t an analog instrument in sight. Gemini North is operated from the summit, and observers often work right along side. Apparently, there’s some remote observing done, but not remote operation.

Eventually, the tour was over. (You can find several photo sets on my Flickr photostream.) I thanked Joy for a splendid tour, climbed back into Boy Truck and made my way down to the VIS.

One of many switchbacks on John A. Burns Way

The drive down was every bit as demanding as the drive up. For one thing, you’d burn out the brakes if you tried to use them to any extent. I’ve been told the thin air doesn’t cool the brakes properly. That sounds reasonable, but even at sea level, riding your brakes for 8 miles would ruin them, too. It’s the engine that keeps the speed down. Boy Truck did that job well, but with considerable noise. Driving back down John A. Burns Way, brakes aren’t useful for much more than making small adjustments to your speed. For example, a light tap keeps a downshift from throwing you onto the steering wheel.

During compression braking, Boy Truck tended to over-steer.  That can get tiring after a while. But the scenery was spectacular, and since I’d made the trip before as a passenger, it wasn’t too hard to catch a few peeks between tough spots on the road. In retrospect, I could have stopped off at pull-off areas. At the time, it just didn’t seem to be worth the trouble, particularly since my windshield-mounted camera was recording wide-angle video. Of course, it meant I didn’t get well-framed stills from good angles. Ah, well. At least I have some pretty good video captures.

After a short break at the VIS, I had an easy drive down to the foot of the access road. On this less demanding road, it was a lot easier to enjoy the scenery.

This is the view as you reach Saddle Road. To the right, there’s Mauna Loa in the distance.

This scrubby cinder cone marks the trailhead for the the Mauna Kea access road. As I turned onto Saddle Road and headed back to Hilo, I felt oddly unsettled. Perhaps I was feeling wistful to be leaving Mauna Kea for the last time.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Visiting CFHT

2012 June 07 – The Sky and Telescope Venus Transit Tour was over. A small sub-group was heading out to visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center, but most of us were leaving the group. I was staying in Hawaii for a few more days, but shifting myself to Hilo for less expensive accommodations, and better access to Mauna Kea and Volcanoes National Park.

Saddle Road threads between Mauna Kea (left) and Mauna Loa (right). At the midpoint, it tops out at about 6500 feet.

Saddle Road still has an undeservedly bad reputation, and some car rental companies don’t allow renters to use it. It’s been upgraded, though it still has a few one-lane bridges to remind you of its origins as a military road. Even so, Saddle Road is a good way to get across the Big Island. It’s an interesting drive, too.  As you work your way up the shallow (but very long!) grade, you go through several climate zones, and pass over a few old lava fields.  By the half-way point, find yourself at a 6500 foot elevation, preparing to go right back down to sea level.

By the time I’d reached Hawaii, I had tentative arrangements to visit the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) and Gemini North, two of the three Mauna Kea observatories in which Canada is a partner. (Alas, I wasn’t able to make arrangements to visit the third, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.)  My arrangements were reasonably firm, but my visits would be subject to operational concerns, and could have been cancelled. I didn’t get the final confirmations until June 06. In fact, I actually got the confirmation calls while I was on my commercial trip to the summit.

This is the start of the Mauna Kea Access Road. The observatories aren’t visible from this angle.

After checking in at my Hilo hotel, I turned around and went back west on Saddle Road and on to Mauna Kea. I’d be meeting my host at Hale Pohaku, and he’d be taking me from there to the summit.

The drive to the Visitor Information Station was lovely, but a tough enough burden for my rental car. Even with embedded computers to adjust fuel mixture, timing, and such, car engines don’t work efficiently at 9000-odd feet.  The temperature gauge was getting uncomfortably close to the red line by the time I pulled in at the VIS.

On the previous two trips, I hadn’t had much trouble with the altitude, but I took my pulse oximeter along out of curiosity. At the VIS, I took a measurement of 92% oxygen saturation. The previous trips must have improved my acclimatization.

David Woodworth, CFHT remote observer and operator. You couldn’t ask for a more knowledgeable and personable host.

At the staff residence complex, I met my host, David Woodworth. David came to Hawaii years earlier and loved the place on sight. As he put it, “I got to Hawaii and then decided I had to find a way to stay here.” He’s worked at a grade school teaching mathematics, at the University of Hawaii, and then for the CFHT Corporation, starting out as a telescope operator. Automation cut into operator positions, so David upgraded his skills and became a remote observer. In that capacity, he doesn’t have research projects per se, but he handles queued observations and assesses the images he acquires.

David’s also taken an interest in the geology and archaeology of the Big Island. He’s got a lot of background to share, and he’s a natural story-teller. It’s a shame David hasn’t written a book or hosted a documentary.

We met the other members of our observatory tour, a group of French amateur astronomers who’d made arrangements through a French researcher at CFHT. They’d observed the Transit of Venus from Maui, and had just come to the Big Island.  Nicolas, Christian, Pierre, and Serge are members of a group specializing in astronomical drawings, and the examples I’ve seen are exquisite. I’m looking forward to seeing their drawings of the Transit.

We did have a linguistic challenge. My French colleagues spoke little English, and David speaks little French. This left me in an interpreter’s role — a bit of stretch for me. I’m going to claim that I forgot most of my French grammar because of the altitude. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)  In any case, we all managed with plenty of good will and a more than a few laughs.

The view from CFHT, facing east.

CFHT started operations in 1979. As one of the earliest observatories to be established on Mauna Kea,  CFHT has an enviable location. It’s on an isolated spur of the highest usable ridge on the summit. I met several people (including a clearly envious Keck staff astronomer) who claim that CFHT occupies the best spot on the mountain. I’m sure that’s debatable, but there’s no question that the view from CFHT is magnificent.

The striking CFHT observatory

The giant 8 and 10 meter telescopes surrounding CFHT dwarf its modest 3.6 meter aperture. Possibly because of necessity, CFHT has consistently adopted new imaging technologies long before other major observatories. Astronomers working out of CFHT continue to produce world-class results.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for CFHT. At the risk of sounding maudlin, it’s like a feisty old bantam, still keeping up with its bigger, newer neighbors. I was thrilled at the chance to explore CFHT.

Of course, there was also the opportunity to take in another Mauna Kea sunset. From the exterior catwalk, the sunset was spectacular. One great advantage was being able to rapidly shift from an eastern viewpoint to a western viewpoint. That let me keep track of both the sunset itself and Mauna Kea’s looming shadow.  I think you’ll enjoy my CFHT Sunset photo set.

New monitors are interspersed with old gauges and controls

After serving freshly brewed coffee and what just could have been the world’s finest shortbread cookies, David took us on an expedition through the observatory. If we missed seeing something, it probably didn’t matter.

The control room was fascinating, particularly for an engineering type like me. Old analog gauges and annunciators revealed CFHT’s late ’70s origins. You don’t see too many push-button switches and indicators with engraved legends any more. Modern digital displays and monitors had been neatly worked into the consoles. The blend of old and new technology showed how the observatory had kept pace with advancing technology.

In fact, the control room is nearly redundant. CFHT can be operated from the headquarters building in Waimea, without an operator in the observatory. David explained how they’d installed an extensive set of sensors and actuators, many designed and built from scratch. For example, special sensors in the telescope floor could even detect hydraulic fluid leaks and trigger a remote alarm. Maintenance specialists on standby notice would be called automatically if a serious problem developed. Since specialists wouldn’t normally be standing by on the summit, there’d be no additional delay in responding to a problem.

Many observatories provide remote observation facilities. CFHT also provides queued observation services, which remote observers such as David handle on behalf of researchers who could be anywhere in the world. From long experience as an astronomy educator, I know this idea disappoints people who imagine that lonely astronomers are still spending long, cold nights peering into eyepieces. Only amateurs (and graduate students) do that any more.

For a “small” telescope, this is a massive piece of machinery.

From the control room, we went down to the telescope floor. Looking up from the floor to the top of the dome gives you a good appreciation of the size of this “small” telescope. The photo to the left gives some sense of the size; this photo set shows more details.

With its massive-looking yoke mount supporting a sturdy truss-work telescope tube, the CFHT reminds me of the Hale Telescope. CFHT is a bit smaller, but it’s also more graceful. This telescope is beautiful.

We had an unusual opportunity to get a very good look at the telescope. The shutter mechanism had broken down two months earlier. The repairs were mostly complete, but the observatory director had decided—sensibly, in my opinion—to do a thorough engineering investigation to figure out why the mechanism had broken in the first place. With the heavy work done, it was safe to go onto the telescope floor. Since the testing wasn’t complete, there was no observing run that night. Out of rotten luck for the observatory, our group had a wonderful opportunity.

With equipment mounts at both Cassegrain focus and prime focus, CFHT provides a lot of options for installing instruments. There’s also an optical train leading to a coudé focus, but that hasn’t been used for some time. The coudé focus room still has a passageway to the telescope mount, but it seems to be a storage room now.

We finished up our visit in a lab space at the bottom of the observatory. A group of engineers and astronomers were working on an interferometry system. It was too windy that night for good results, but what they were seeing was encouraging. Okay, I had to take their word for it. I do understand the basics of interferometry, but not enough to make an intelligent assessment of the interference patterns on an oscilloscope.

Astronomical twilight hadn’t ended by the time we left the observatory, but the sky was dark and studded with hard, sharp stars. Looking southwest, I was a bit disappointed with the Milky Way. It was nothing like the magnificent star-cloud I’d seen the night before. Stars that had seemed vividly colored had no particular color at all.

When we got back to Hale Pohaku, I saw, first-hand, the effects of altitude on vision. Having descended more than a kilometer, the sky was as vivid and brilliant as I’d seen it the night before.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Mauna Kea’s Summit

There are people I know who live for their next trip. On the other hand, I put up with travel when I have a good reason. Seeing the Transit of Venus from Hawaii added up to a good enough reason.

Don’t get me wrong. Seeing all the stages of the Transit of Venus was an incredible experience, one that will be a highlight of my life. Visiting the Mauna Kea Observatories is something I’ve dreamed about for years.  Add the two of them, and as my wife, Nancy, told me when the tour was announced: “Tim, you have got to do this!”  (If this sounds like I’m an immensely fortunate husband, it’s only because I am!)

This panorama from Mauna Kea’s highest summit ridge shows the view to the west shortly before sunset. Left to right: UKIRT, Submillimeter Valley, Subaru, Keck I and II, NASA IRTF. Hualalai rises above the cloud deck, just right of UKIRT.

Gerard Kuiper spearheaded the development of observatories on Mauna Kea. He once declared that Mauna Kea was the best astronomical location on Earth. You can debate that, of course.  On average, there are more clear nights in the Atacama, but Mauna Kea offers the best seeing on the planet. For me, going to the summit of Mauna Kea was very close to a pilgrimage.

Of course, I’d been to the summit just the day before, but my focus had been the Transit of Venus.  Despite access being strictly restricted, the mountain was swarming. Taking a commercial tour meant I could have a relaxing trip and really enjoy the experience. It turned out to be a very good decision.

There are several companies on the Big Island that run authorized Mauna Kea tours.  They all have slightly different offerings that cater to different interests and clientele. The company that looked after our Sky and Telescope group did a fine job, as did the firm I used the next day. A few days later, I met another fellow who’d used an outfit that catered more to hikers and naturalists than astronomy enthusiasts, and he’d also been happy with his trip.

You could drive yourself, but it’s probably better to use a commercial outfit. If nothing else, you can’t drive a basic rental car up Mauna Kea. By the time you rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a hefty engine and pay for the gas, you’ve very nearly matched the price of the commercial tour. Letting someone else drive lets you enjoy the scenery, which you can’t do while negotiating a tricky road. On the flip side, you’re traveling with a group people you don’t know, and you’ve got a fixed schedule. I happen to think it’s a good trade-off, and I’ve done it both ways.

The “VIS” – the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station – is part of the observatories’ mid-level facilities at 9200 feet.

My trip started just before 4:00 pm when I met the van at a shopping mall near my hotel. Since I was the only client who wasn’t traveling with a partner (don’t forget, Nancy was back in Ottawa), I had to got to use the shotgun seat in the van. (Woo hoo! Best seat in the house!) We stopped at the Visitor Information Station to acclimatize and have a pleasant picnic-style dinner. The tour operators provide dinner; the VIS stocks munchies, but that’s it.

We headed out to the summit in plenty of time for sunset. This time around, we didn’t have the hectic schedule of Transit Day, so our driver had plenty of time to point out sites such as the Ice Age Reserve (which is well marked) and the ancient adz quarry (which isn’t marked at all).

The first observatories come into view from the summit road. Left to right: James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, CalTech Submillimete Observatory, Subaru Observatory, Keck Observatories

As you approach the summit, the first observatory you see is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, in Submillimeter Valley. We went on to stop at the CalTech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) just as it was opening up in preparation for the night’s work. The dome is small, so it’s easy to miss the size of the telescope’s antenna. At 10.4 meters, it’s a bit bigger than the Keck Telescope’s primary mirror.

We took the opportunity to put on jackets. That’s another advantage of taking a commercial tour —they provide the warm clothing. Since I’d come for the Transit tour, I’d taken cold-weather gear. Most people visiting Hawaii aren’t likely to bother.

Next stop: the high summit ridge, just in time for sunset. We didn’t see that on Transit Day, and I’d been looking forward to sunset from Mauna Kea’s summit.  I’ve used this word a lot, but “spectacular” is the best one I can think of. And it works.

Clear, thin air and a low deck of diffusing cloud produce a magnificent sunset.

There’s a sunset sequence in my Flickr set for this visit. I think you’ll enjoy it.

After sunset, we headed back down to the mid-levels for a stargazing session.  The tour operator brought a pair of  C-11s (for my non-astronomer friends, 11-inch reflecting telescopes), and we’d driven down a dark turn-off from the access road. The guides gave a good presentation, and had selected excellent targets, but I was more fascinated by the sky itself, and took only the barest peeks through the ‘scope.

I have never seen a more magnificent sky, nor better seeing. It took a moment for me to distinguish Spica from Saturn — I’m usually a bit lazy and just look for twinkling. There wasn’t any. Once I got past that, I realized I didn’t need that hint anyway. The colors were so vivid that Spica and Saturn were absolutely unmistakable anyway.

Having found Centaurus and the Southern Cross a couple of days earlier, I was delighted to see them again, but in brilliant color.  I discovered the real glory of the sky when I found Scorpius — absurdly high in the sky by my mid-latitude standards. 20 degrees North latitude isn’t all that far south, but it’s enough that the star clouds around Scorpius and Sagittarius are high and clear. Even though I knew better, the thought popped into my head: “Damn it, it’s clouding over!”

Alas, my camera doesn’t have a “Bulb” setting, and my attempts to photograph that magnificent sky were fruitless. I’ll have to remember my “retinal imaging.” Not that I’m likely to forget.

We were packing up just as the moon rose above a low cinder cone. But real clouds started drifting over the horizon. Their red tinge just seemed like moonrise effects, but it lingered after the moon rose higher. We were seeing the glow from Kilauea’s lava, almost 50 kilometers away, on the far side of Mauna Loa.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Keck Observatory HQ

The morning after our incredible Transit experience, the Sky and Telescope Transit of Venus group visited the Keck Observatory Headquarters in Waimea.

Keck I and II during late-afternoon preparation

The two observatories on the summit are what get the attention, but astronomers rarely work there. Night Attendants watch over the observatories, while observers work remotely. The most common remote location is the Headquarters building.

There are several places called “Waimea” in the Hawaiian Islands. The town on the Big Island has the semi-official name of Kamuela — at least, that’s what’s on the post office sign. The local folks seem to use both names, just to add to the confusion. Waimea is a bit like a university town, in that the biggest employers are the Keck Observatory Headquarters and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Headquarters. Of course, there aren’t many undergraduates, so I don’t imagine the townsfolk get the (dubious) entertainment of cars placed on rooftops and such like.

The segmented mirror motif shows up throughout the headquarters building.

The Keck Observatory Headquarters building has ubiquitous reminders of the telescopes’ segmented mirrors. For example, the hexagonal lawn behind the shrub is the the size of a Keck Telescope primary mirror. The white background behind the the semi-hexagonal dormer is low-lying cloud. That seems pretty typical for Waimea. It’s not in a rain forest, but the vegetation is lush. And wet.

In principle,  you can see the observatories on Mauna Kea with small telescopes set up in the lobby. This assumes a clear day, which doesn’t seem very common in Waimea.

There are several models of the observatories and the telescopes in the headquarters building.

From the summit, it’s a bit hard to get a good feel for the overall design of the Keck Telescopes themselves. They’re enormous, and you can’t get a good view from the visitor’s gallery. The splendid models in the headquarters building give a much better sense of these telescopes are put together.

Dr. Gregory Wirth, a support astronomer for the observatory, gave a good presentation on the Keck Observatory and its operations.  He had a great assortment of presentation gadgets on hand, such as an assortment of spectrum reference lamps. (I’ve wished we had those for Museum science programs!) One gadget was a real “why didn’t I think of that?” item: a Doppler ball. It’s just an electronic whistle on a string, which you can whirl around your head to demonstrate Doppler shifts. The sound reminded me of a Leslie speaker. (Which, as I discovered when I looked for a link, are still made. Who knew?) I’ve got to make one of those Doppler balls….

Not that I’m putting down Dr. Wirth’s talk — he’s an excellent speaker — but, the presentation was considerably enhanced by splendid pastries and coffee. (Not 100% Kona, but a well-done Kona-Java blend). The Keck outreach people know how to run a morning event for astronomers!

Keck staff astronomer Luca Rizzi displays a spectrometer slit mask. Each slit isolates a specific star for one measurement. Each slit mask is custom manufactured the day it’s used.

As much as I enjoyed the talk, I thought the highlight of the trip was visiting one of the remote observation control rooms. Okay, it’s just a room loaded with servers, wall monitors and computers, but it’s tied to one of the most sophisticated observatories on the planet. (Color me geek, if  you like!) Luca Rizzi is one of the staff astronomers who works with visiting researchers. He walked us through the process of running an observatory where the time is said to be valued at about $10,000 per second.

Luca’s a recent graduate of the University of Padua, and was quick to remind us that Galileo studied and taught at the same institution. He seemed genuinely delighted with that astronomically cool tidbit, as I think most of us were.

A single blog post can’t really do justice to our visit. Keck Observatory is an impressive institution. Each staff member I met had an unmistakeable sense of pride in the Observatory. You can argue that you’d expect that in people who’ll go out to talk to visitors, but I’ve met a lot of public presenters. These folks are passionate about what they do, and they’re good at it. Being around people like that — even for an hour or two — is always a privilege.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Transit Day, Part 3

The 13 observatories on Mauna Kea are scattered at different locations around the upper mountain.  Optical and infrared observatories are on the high ridges.

This is the last switchback before you reach the highest observatories on Mauna Kea.

Submillimeter telescopes are clustered just below the summit. From left to right: CalTech Submillimeter Observatory, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Submillimeter Array

Just below the optical/IR telescopes is an area known informally as “Submillimeter Valley.”  The observatories here house microwave-band radio telescopes. The very short wavelengths — just barely longer than infrared light — mean that that submillimeter telescopes don’t need the huge dishes usually associated with radio telescopes.  The observatories in Submillimeter Valley are among the most sophisticated facilities on the planet, but they don’t get a lot of publicity. I suspect it’s because radio astronomy doesn’t lend itself to the beautiful astrophotos that adorn so many books and magazines.

Summit visitors pose for photo with clouds and Mauna Loa in the background.

This photograph, and the one above of Submillimeter Valley, show the clouds swirling around Mauna Kea. That actually leads into to the next phase of our Transit Day activities.

The original plan was to observe Venus’s egress from a hill near the VIS.  It looked as though the clouds around Mauna Kea might obscure the Sun for observers on the hill. Our group organizers hurried off to scout alternative locations.

As it turned out, one of the most likely prospects turned out to be the beach behind our hotel. So, a good many of us decided to make a quick trip back to Waikoloa Beach. We got back shortly before the predicted time for Third Contact, and we scurried to set up. I imagine the other hotel guests must have wondered about the people stampeding into the lobby. A herd of astronomers, carrying packs and equipment, many of us still wearing warmer clothes, must have been a bizarre sight for Hawaii!

Our observing station for Venus’s egress

Hawaii was at the edge of the region where the entire 2012 Transit of Venus was visible, so we were observing near sunset, through a considerable mass of warm air. Having seen a crystal-clear ingress and many sharp mid-Transit images, I wasn’t  particularly concerned about the seeing. As long as I could see the egress, I’d be a very contented astronomer.

There was something like a black drop effect at Third Contact, but I felt it was mostly the blur and ripple of mediocre seeing. It did give me a hint of what the observers must have felt two and a half centuries ago. Imagine this as your best observation after a year of difficult travel. Not a happy situation!

Venus is just on verge of making Third Contact

Fortunately, my situation in 2012 was considerably happier. I watched, fascinated, as Venus slid past the Sun’s shuddering limb. There wasn’t much agreement as to the instant of Fourth Contact, though the hydrogen-α contingent got an extra half-minute or so.

At length, spontaneous cheers and applause rose from Waikoloa Beach as we acknowledged that the 2012 Transit of Venus was over. We’d been privileged to see a truly rare event, and we’d seen it all.

A splendid conclusion for Transit Day


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