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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About Tim Cole

Astronomy enthusiast and educator, all-around fancier of dark skies and starry nights
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