Thursday, 30 July 2009

Submillimeter Valley

Although it's not an official name, everyone who works at the summit of Mauna Kea knows "Submillimeter Valley". It's the name given to the area that's home to all the submillimeter telescopes on the mountain: the CSO, the JCMT and the SMA. This region is a few hundred feet below the summit and the optical-infrared telescopes. I'm not entirely sure I know the reason why these observatories are in the valley rather than a little higher up where the other telescopes are, it may be a scientific one or purely logistical, or a combination of both. I haven't really thought about it before but now I have, I will ask and find out!

Submillimeter telescopes bridge the gap between observing in the optical/infrared and the radio regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unlike radio telescopes, they need a dry atmosphere in order to work hence the reason for placing them on high mountains such as Mauna Kea in Hawai`i or the high Atacama desert in northern Chile where most of the atmospheric water is below them. That's partly the reason you'll find infrared telescopes at similar sites as they are also affected by telluric water but often suffer a disadvantage: more often than not submillimeter telescopes can look right through high cirrus clouds as the water is frozen into ice particles and is undetectable at submillimeter wavelengths. On the other hand, ice shines rather brightly in the infrared so all we can do on those cloudy nights is detect cloud! I've spent many nights on Mauna Kea during which we can't work yet we get called by our colleagues at the JCMT telling us what a wonderful night it is!

The view above was taken just outside one of the mountain's infrared telescopes, UKIRT, looking down at Submillimeter Valley in May earlier this year. The shot below, from roughly the same place, was taken in March during one of the most awful few months of summit weather I've known in the last decade.

Slumbering giants

I think I've pretty much finished recycling and reprocessing the photos I took before the great computer crash of April 2009, at least those taken at the summit of Mauna Kea. There may be two or three more I post soon but that's it until I'm back up there, although I have a very busy summit schedule in August, so should get some opportunities! There are plenty of others I need to work on that were taken in Hilo and the Puna district of the Big Island but they can wait awhile.

This picture is of the twin Kecks on the summit. On this particular evening the domes would remain closed for quite some time after sunset due to clouds at summit level. The last thing you need is to have water condense on any of the optics, such as the telescope mirrors themselves, and then possibly freeze as the temperatures drop at night. That once happened to me on an observing run in Australia and both the observing team and telescope operator were rather embarrassed! Fortunately, it was alright in the end as we managed to evaporate the water before it could cause any problems.

The Kecks are among the largest optical (and infrared) telescopes on the planet and certainly the largest established optical telescopes with primary mirrors 10-metres in diameter (approximately 33-feet). The primary mirrors aren't one single piece of glass, in fact they are essentially a honeycomb of smaller one metre diameter hexagonal mirrors. It is extremely challenging to build a single-piece large astronomical mirror although the technology is certainly improving (the precision needed in the final mirror is extraordinary). 8-metre single mirror optical telescopes do exist (Gemini on Mauna Kea is an example) and I'm sure one day there will be larger ones although how you transport such large mirrors might be a bit of an issue, especially on the narrow dirt road on Mauna Kea. Single mirrors are definitely an advantage for infrared observing as the emissivity is reduced, i.e., the glow from the telescope itself is minimised. A honeycomb type design does tend to have emissive regions in between the mirror segments although as always there are clever ways to reduce that.

On evenings like those pictured above, so typical during the winter and spring, we'll arrive at the summit with clouds surrounding us. Inexperienced visitors tend to be concerned, especially during the foggy drive up, that we won't be observing that night, but nearly always, just as the sun sets, the clouds will drop way below the summit and it will be safe to open the domes. On some occasions that doesn't happen of course, but when you've worked here for several years you often just have a "feel" for what the clouds will do and can reassure the visiting astronomers that they'll soon be able to take some data!

PS. Incidentally, especially for my Europe- and Asia-based readers, the region-free PAL release of "Hawaiian Starlight" is now available. If for some reason you like my pictures taken at the summit of Mauna Kea I think you'll love the DVD. Beautiful and stunning movies of the summit, telescopes, sunsets/sunrises and the universe accompanied by some great music and no narration, it's just a visual and aural spectacular. Make sure the volume is turned up!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Sunset views of Mauna Loa

I'm still feeling crap but not quite as ill as a couple of days ago, so am hopefully on the mend! I was planning to spend a couple of days in the yard this weekend but that certainly didn't happen and instead have been somewhat inactive inside the house while moaning about the heat and humidity. Although this island is so beautiful with a very warm climate, it can be a particularly unpleasant place to live when you're ill and you haven't got air conditioning!

Anyway, I'm still going through some of my old photos and found a couple more to reprocess. The problem I had was my old PC died a few months ago and although all my original images were backed up and safe, the processed images weren't so although I managed to save some (anything taken after May as it happens) the others needed some work.

These are a couple of of images I took last December while on an observing run that was plagued by clouds but as usual that meant stunning sunsets. Mauna Loa is a massive volcano, in fact it is the largest one on the planet. Its enormous wight bends the sea floor below by an incredible five miles and if you use that to measure its base, the volcano is a mind-blowing 56,000 feet tall!

It is also rather active. Although nothing untoward is happening currently it typically erupts every decade or so but it hasn't erupted since 1984. Fortunately, the eruptions tend not to be explosive like the infamous Mount St Helens eruption and even though it produces lava flows that move rapidly there is usually enough warning for people to evacuate although property is often destroyed. The last eruption in 1984 threatened the island's main town, Hilo, but the eruption stopped and the supply of lava was cut off to the flow which stopped just a few miles from the outskirts of Hilo Town. I wasn't living here then, but it must have been a worrying and frightening time.

Where the lava flows during the next eruption is unknown, the mountain threatens communities everywhere on the island although the Ka`u region on the south-eastern side of the island is particularly threatened and there's even more of a threat to South Kona on the west side of the island; the lava from the summit can reach those places in just a few hours after the initial eruption.

It would be amazing to be on Mauna Kea when the next Mauna Loa eruption occurs, the view must be spectacular if a little frightening.

Incidentally, I know one or two people must be wondering, but the UFO picture in my last blog entry was photoshopped. I was curious to see if anyone took the bait (apparently, 1,500 twitters were told about project Oink and UFOs over Mauna Kea spying on the US Navy's latest submarine) but the original photo was posted just a few days ago in "Recycling old photos". I'm encouraged, by the way, that I didn't get more comments, but the hits on this blog certainly went up that day!

Saturday, 25 July 2009

UFO over Mauna Kea

OK, I admit it. The picture I originally posted was edited - I photoshopped an image of the moon in place of a UFO on final approach to the secret alien landing base on Hualalai. The other observatories on Mauna Kea guided it in using their laser beams while we tracked its infrared signature all the way into its secret landing base - the operation was codenamed "Oink" after Hawaiian pigs because we thought that would distract others from working out the real purpose of their visit and why they chose Hawaii.

It's no secret now that they are here to spy on the latest US submarine, USS Hawaii, which is now docked in Honululu. It's well known that alien spacecraft are incapable of tracking objects underwater hence the sudden interest by our alien friends. This is their opportunity to visit the submarine and learn its secrets before it leaves and submerges forever.

I'm sure some people will think operation Oink is a piss take, but I can assure you that it is the right name and I would not post something like this unless there was something better to do.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Home alone

Maybe I should drink more orange juice or something, take vitamin pills or just stop shaking hands. I don't know, but I'm down with the flu or a cold or something, not sure which. I could tell if the thermometer I have worked but the battery no longer works and I don't have the energy to leave the house and buy a new one. What a way to spend a Friday night. I wanted to spend the day in bed but it's been so hot and humid here it was just too unpleasant a thought, so sat in front of a fan watching old Frasier episodes. I'm such a fun guy these days...

At least I can keep recycling some old photos. This new computer may not be great but it's certainly a lot faster than my old one and I don't have to wait a few hours to create a panorama for instance. So here are a few photos I managed to get through today. Hope you like them and I'll be back to normal soon.

Sunset clouds (yet again). They may look familiar but I don't think I've posted this particular shot before.

I like this one because it shows the transition between light and darkness. Half the clouds are lit by sunlight and the others are in shadow. I've posted part of this before but not the panorama.

Hualalai volcano in the distance and lots of falling ice, or at least someone would be falling if they got a little closer. Another shot from last winter.

A real wintry scene. I don't think I altered this very much from the first time I posted it, I just like it because unless you're familiar with the place the last thing you'd think is this was taken in Hawai`i.

One of my favourites. It's an HDR image and I'm slowly losing my enthusiasm for the technique, but it can produce some beautiful pictures even if they don't look real. When I first posted this it didn't have the cinder cones on the left but I think they now add something to the shot, although perhaps just some more shadows.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Recycling old photos

I'm a bit tied up with various things right now so haven't been blogging much. In what spare time I have I've been looking at some of the photos I took when I first got my camera late last year and thought I'd try and reprocess them given I have a little more knowledge about photography than I had then. Still, there's that saying "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and I've always thought it's a damn good one, especially as I've seen it demonstrated so well over the years. Still, what harm can this do?

You've seen 'em before but not like this!

I've always loved this picture but the previous photo was just a subset of one of the original panoramas I tried. This isn't the whole thing, but most of it. One of the surprises of joining Flickr is that you suddenly get requests to share your pictures in other groups or elsewhere. This one ended up in a news story about the Thirty Meter Telescope coming to Hawai`i although I have no idea as to the credibility of the site. Seems they do like to grab pictures (with permission I should add) that have even the smallest connection to their story, but I'm not complaining!

A small lenticular cloud over Mauna Loa. It was windy that day and trying to hold the camera steady was challenging, but it turned out OK in the end. I had to throw away a number of photos though.

This was taken during the same observing run, I think a day earlier though. It's now on a Flickr group with a sense of humour - Wee Moon Photographs. Weee!

They didn't want this one though. Don't know why, it has a wee moon. It's the UH 88-inch telescope and the shadow of UKIRT's dome.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

TMT selects Mauna Kea

Big news for the Island of Hawai`i. The Thirty Meter Telescope has selected Mauna Kea as its preferred site. More later.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

I finally succumbed

What a day, it's just been one when nothing has gone right but fortunately nothing really bad happened, just lots of frustration. Among other things, tomorrow I will find out why my hurricane insurance has lapsed for non-payment despite the fact that it's my mortgage company that's actually supposed to pay the premiums from the money I give them, in a timely manner, each month. I'm sure I'll be receiving a letter from them in the next day saying my mortgage is at risk because I don't have the insurance they require. It happened last year as well and it was their fault then as it almost certainly is now.

40 years ago to the day we first stepped on the surface of the moon, so that'll cheer me up but I'll leave that to other bloggers to describe, I was a little too young to know what was going on at the time. England are winning the second test match against the Australians, and that has really cheered me up!

Finally, after some gentle persuasion, I finally have a Flickr account. I've put some of my favourite photos there, most of them have appeared on this blog in the past so they'll not be new to you, but hope you take a look and enjoy or perhaps use a critical eye and look at them in disgust!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Synchronized sleeping

Has this sport made it to the Olympics yet? My two girls are rather good at it.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

So it doesn't come with free tea?

When I first moved to the Big Island of Hawai`i I heard many people talk about tea plants and assumed there was a thriving tea-based agriculture on the island. It seemed sensible, tea is grown in the tropics after all, isn't it? For someone like me that really did sound like paradise. I'd grown up and lived nearly thirty years in England and a nice cup of tea was always a highlight of the day. For any Bill Bryson fan out there who's familiar with "Notes from a Small Island", you'll be familiar with the reaction of most English people when given a cup of tea - "Ooh, lovely!".

The house I bought here had a very nice advert which included "awake with the doves" (actually, I think they're pigeons), "listen to the waves breaking on the cliffs" (now drowned out by the coquis) and there was a mention of the plants in the yard, but it didn't click. The realtor mentioned tea plants so I looked forward to growing my own tea while enjoying the doves and the sound of the waves.

Actually, it didn't click for a very long time afterwards, but in those days I'd go around the yard trying to figure out what plant was what and finally gave up and asked a friend to go round for me and list them all in return for dinner. I think it was only then that I realised that all the tea plants that I couldn't find were, in fact, ti plants.

And I didn't even realise that's what they made grass skirts from...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Mauna Kea's shadows and reflections

Some more pictures from the other evening on Mauna Kea, this time shadows and reflections. The first shows those anticrepuscular rays again although this time without the shadow of Mauna Kea. They were hardly visible to the naked eye and even in a single photograph they were hard to see, but this is a combination of three exposures combined using HDR techniques which helped to make the rays more obvious. This was taken well before sunset and the sun was still too high for a shadow of the mountain to form...

...but half an hour later the sun was about to set. With the sun so low the summit was an intense red and the shadows of the tourists watching the sunset were visible on the summit's west-facing slope. To the left the shadow of Mauna Kea was very obvious but now the sunlight was not shining through clouds so the anticrepuscular rays had disappeared.

I've taken a few pictures like this in the past, mainly just for a bit of fun! The windows on UKIRT's dome extension are silvered so they reflect almost as well as any mirror, but I'm sure a few tourists wondered what I might have been doing taking pictures of some windows rather than enjoying the setting sun. Anyway, the UH 88-inch telescope is to the left, Gemini to the right. That ugly building in between is the summit lunch hut which, fortunately, is not used at night!

Facing the other way allowed a shot of the twin Kecks and the thick layer of cirrus above that was to make observations so difficult later on.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A decline in Mauna Kea tourism?

I haven't been at the summit of Mauna Kea much recently but my impression is the commercial tour companies have been doing quite well despite the poor economy. Hotel occupancy rates are down on all the islands and I thought that would result in fewer people visiting the summit to witness the amazing sunsets and the odd tour to see the even more stunning sunrises. Still, when I was up there regularly until a month or so ago, the tour company traffic appeared to be as healthy as ever.

Those trips are not cheap, typically $200 per person, but I've heard few bad words about the tours and considering what's included the money is likely well spent. They don't just take you on a quick trip to the summit to see the sunset, they also stop on the way down to star gaze at the at the 9000-ft level and get to meet and talk to the experts on the night sky; the volunteer staff at the visitor center. The night sky there is often much more impressive than the summit simply because there's more oxygen in the atmosphere and your eyes work much better!

The visitors in the first picture were watching the same sunset I saw and it was among the most beautiful and spectacular ones I've seen. My pictures of it are in my two previous blog entries but here's another one - taken at the same time those tourists were going "ooh!" and "ah!". I suspect one or two were vomiting as well due to the altitude - I always like to add a bit of romance to my posts.

On this evening I also had a really interesting chat with one of the Mauna Kea rangers called Matt, a most pleasant fellow. He mistook me for a tourist at first although I don't know why; I was standing outside with a camera saying "ooh" and "ah", obviously the behaviour of a long-time professional astronomer who's worked at the summit for well over a decade. Anyway, we had a great chat and he told me that although the evening visitors seem to still be stopping by in roughly the same numbers, the daytime tourist numbers have dropped significantly.

I'm not sure what to make of that. The tour companies tend to cater for the sunset crowd and during the day it's always been individual tourists at the summit in their rental cars, whether legal or not. It seems that it might be this particular type of tourist that has stopped visiting and I'm not sure why that's the case. It's always been a cheaper way to visit the summit, especially for a couple or family, but of course you don't get a tour guide. Maybe I'm just a little out-of-touch with 4-WD rental costs.

This is a picture taken next to the UKIRT of the CSO (left), the JCMT (middle) and one antenna belonging to the SMA (far right). At the bottom you can see some tour company visitors inspecting our emergency evacuation vehicle (the red van which is our ambulance that we're all trained to use, including turning on the siren which is great fun!). Oh, perhaps they having a closer look at the CSO...

The next few months will be interesting. I'm not up again for a while but the schedule is ever changing so you never know. In the meantime I'll see if I can find out a little more about visitor numbers.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Red sky at night...

...shepherd's delight
Red sky in the morning; shepherd's warning.

There is a little scientific validity behind this phrase which I'm sure you all learned as a child although some may know it with "sailor" rather than "shepherd". I won't bore you with the science, but last night on the summit of Mauna Kea we witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets I've seen in a while, especially once the sun had actually set but unfortunately, in astronomy, a red sky at night is usually a warning. Last night it really should have been two warnings: the night would be bad (although it did clear up a bit later) and watch out you stupid astronomer, try not to trip and twist your knee!

Like us, the NASA IRTF opens the dome early to help cool the dome and although it's hard to observe at this time of day it helps with image quality at the start of the night; the local turbulence caused by warm air rising from the telescope optics, its structure and the dome itself is reduced. The IRTF actually cools the dome during the day so the effect is reduced, but it always helps to try and equalise temperatures as early as possible.

The sky was stunning in the south-west...

...but even more beautiful in the west. Here Subaru and one of the Kecks are silhouetted against the sky and the brilliant red clouds at a level, unfortunately, above the summit. We would fight these clouds all night. It was also about this time I managed to trip on something I didn't see (my eyesight still isn't back to what it should be after a problem a few weeks ago) and although I didn't make a spectacle of myself by sprawling all over the lava rocks, I think I twisted my knee. There was no pain at the time but a couple of hours later I could hardly move my left knee and I've been hobbling all day today! Duh!

Friday, 10 July 2009

Beautiful sky - ugly astronomy

This was the summit scene a few minutes after sunset tonight: beautiful red clouds but a sky so thick with them that we have little chance of taking any data.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The greatest test - The Ashes

In a couple of hours time the greatest sporting event in the world will recommence. I wish I was there, it's the thing I miss most about living in England. Hawai`i is lacking when it comes to the noble sport of cricket.

Although England had played Australia previously, the Ashes was born after a match in 1882 when the Aussies beat England and it was seen as the death of English cricket. This is a common occurrence to this day, but every so often England manage to win one of the biannual contests.

In my opinion there is no greater sport than cricket and there is no greater contest than the Aussies vs. the Poms. It's a team sport but is also an individual game with the batsman taking on the bowler. Unlike baseball, it's acceptable for the bowler (pitcher) to try and take a batsman's (batter) head off (but it must pitch first, i.e., bounce) and afterwards they'll both joke about it and shake hands. Unless they're some called Jeff Thomson.

Placing the fielders is like a chess game - put a couple of fielders out at long leg and the batsman might think the bowler will send another ball towards his head and prepare for a hook, but he may not, it might be a yorker or even cleverer, a slower ball!

Don't know what I'm talking about? No problem!

Cricket is one of those sports you really have to play from childhood in order to understand properly. You can certainly learn the laws (cricket has laws, not rules) later in life but you'll never learn the nuances. Does it matter who won the toss and decides whether to bat or bowl first? It certainly does but explaining why to someone new to the sport is challenging! It's why I might just stay up a little longer to see which side the coin lands, England's or Australia's.

Anyway, over the next couple of months there will be 25 days of the most intense sport and rivalry that cannot be compared in any other game and it'll surely get nasty at times. Despite that, they'll always stop playing for lunch and tea. After the day's play is over, they'll share a beer or two.

I just wish I was there to see it.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Starting all over again

What a strange feeling - due to an eye problem I've been trying to limit any eye-intensive stuff for the last month or so although that's essentially impossible to do at work. Given that, I've been attempting to avoid photography and online social activity as much as I can - both require a bit of any eye work-out. I'll admit to failing occasionally with the latter but I've hardly touched the camera at all recently but we tried to become reacquainted again the other day.

Since I'm so new to photography some of my lessons haven't quite sunk in. I feel like an athlete (I don't look like one) who's been on the injured list for a while and has to slowly get back into the swing of things.

Or perhaps my memory is just going...

Anyway, the eye is a lot better but there's still a month or two to go, but I might start writing the odd blog post again. Fortunately this little episode coincided with a break from summit duties so I haven't missed out on any great sunsets I could have photographed from Mauna Kea, so settled for this one taken the other day from home. Actually, it was taken about 15-minutes after sunset but the sky looked so colourful I thought I'd give it a try. Not my best (hell, I couldn't remember how to set the camera up!) but I think it looks quite nice.

Thanks to everyone who's wished me well during the last few weeks - I really appreciate your thoughts and wishes!