Saturday, 31 October 2009

Why I wait until after sunset

This is your typical tourist shot, the sunset looks great to your eye but try and capture the shot with a camera and you have one nasty bright sun in the photo. Even this took a bit of an effort to get a little detail on the observatories despite that setting sun!

The colours in the sky for 20 to 30 minutes after sunset are simply awesome even if I hate that word! It's worth hanging around for that long just to get a good photo from Mauna Kea's summit. It's worth the wait even if you freeze your bollocks off (apologies to the ladies).

And put that flash away. I can't believe the number of people who take pictures of a Mauna Kea sunset and have the flash turned on. What on earth are you hoping to accomplish?

Sorry, bad day, I just needed to vent. I hope you're having a great weekend and had a wonderful and spooky Halloween!

Friday, 30 October 2009

Probing the cosmological dark ages

The research papers are officially published and the record breaking observation we made a few months ago is now out there for everyone to read about. It's a strange feeling because I don't think I made much of a scientific contribution to this, Nial Tanvir and Ruben Salvaterra's teams were certainly the people that should take all the credit, but as luck would have it Thor Wold and myself were the first to image and detect the most distant object ever seen in the universe from the ground! Our 20-minute observation, done despite gale-force summit winds, showed that the gamma-ray burst was very red meaning it was either a dusty galaxy, or, more excitingly, an extremely distant object. It turns out it was the latter and the most distant object anyone has seen so far in human history. It's so far away that it happened when the universe was extremely young and few stars and galaxies had had a chance to form, hence the phrase "the dark ages".

Peter Coles wrote a very interesting article about the significance of the discovery in "The Edge of Darkness". The BBC had the news on their front page just the other day under an almost tabloid yet accurate headline - "Stellar blast is record-breaker". The journal Nature is where the real science was published and although you need paid access to the journal there is some stuff you can read in "Most distant gamma-ray burst spotted" and "A flash from the early Universe".

Thor's experience of the night is in the latest UKIRT newsletter in "View from the Top".

I'm sure the record won't last too long but sometimes you can be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In this case the two most experienced staff observers were at the summit together and decided to "give it a go" despite the bad weather, and what a result!

High altitude vog

The rule of thumb on Mauna Kea is that vog, the stuff given off by the active volcano Kilauea, tends not to get above approximately 10,000 feet. When you see haze in the atmosphere above this level it's usually attributed to "Gobi Desert dust"; dirt from the Gobi Desert in Asia blown into the atmosphere by local storms and then brought to Hawai`i across the Pacific by high level winds.

I can't recall ever reading the research paper but apparently there was a study carried out some years ago using the observatories on Mauna Loa (probably the NOAA atmospheric monitoring facility) that found the haze was in fact not due to dust but pollutants from China's industrial regions. If anyone is aware of the study I refer to, I'd be more than grateful for a link to the paper!

With the rather active state of Kilauea recently, it seems on days when the trade winds are not blowing and convection becomes dominant on the Big Island, vog does get to the summit levels and even higher. My guess is that there is so much vog compared to recent years that an observable amount now breaks through the usual inversion layer and escapes to higher altitudes whereas previously some vog might get to higher levels although it wouldn't be enough to be noticed by the casual observer.

Although I can't be certain the picture above shows vog, about 10 minutes after sunset the sky took on a very unusual colour with a pinkish tone high above us. The GOES infrared satellite images indicated there was no cirrus nearby yet there was clearly something at mid-to-high altitude and the vog at slightly lower elevations, such as 9,000 feet at Hale Pohaku, was amongst the worst I had experienced. Whatever it was, it made for another gorgeous if somewhat unusual sunset!

A larger version of the picture is available by clicking on the image above. Incidentally, Subaru is to the left with the twin Kecks on the right. Haleakala, on the island of Maui, is visible to the far right.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

It's a party!

Sometimes we only get five minutes to walk outside the dome between the initial integrity checks (i.e., making sure everything works) and starting the night-time calibrations needed to ensure all the data we take during the night will be calibrated correctly. Right after the calibrations it's dark enough to take data on the sky so we're busy then and there's no time to take some nice pictures.

In those five minutes last night, during my brief sojourn outside to "check the conditions", an excuse I use all the time, I walked right into an awful lot of enthusiastic tourists. They seemed to be having fun!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Time for bed

It's just gone 6 o'clock in the morning and my circadian rhythm is messed up in spectacular fashion. The altitude, 14,000 feet, doesn't help nor does being outside when the body is so tired yet the sun is rising, it just confuses one further and despite not having slept for a good 16 hours, the sunlight tells your brain it's time to wake up. No wonder sleeping during an observing run on Mauna Kea is a very difficult thing to do!

Usually, for the first couple of days I have real problems getting sufficient rest and the times I do sleep my dreams are extremely vivid and often wake me up. After a couple of days, though, you are so tired that sleep comes a little more easily and you start to settle into the new rhythm. Unfortunately, my schedule often involves just the odd one or two nights at the summit separated by a few days, so my brain never really gets its act together. Some tell me, however, that they see no difference between these times and when I'm off the mountain for a while...

Even the observatories have to be put to bed at dawn. Above, Gemini and UKIRT are closed after a night spent observing the cosmos although the daytime engineering crews will be up shortly to work on the various mechanical, electronic and computer equipment - there is always work that needs to be done on the observatories' complex systems whether it's fixing a problem, maintenance or improvements.

The telescopes down in Submillimeter Valley often work into the daylight hours as the wavelengths they work at are not affected by sunlight in the same way as the optical-infrared telescopes. Despite that, even those observers have to sleep at some point!

As ever, you can click on the images to see larger versions.

Monday, 26 October 2009

It looks just like Mars

Whenever I take people to visit the summit of Mauna Kea who have never visited before, there are two general comments they make. The first is that "boy, this looks just like those pictures taken on Mars" and at the summit itself "I feel as though I'm on another planet".

I've shown so many pictures from the summit that I hope people can see it looks rather different to most people's experiences, hence the latter comment. In the middle of nowhere, at 14,000 feet and above the clouds with a plethora of weird and wonderful looking astronomical observatories the place does look like no other on this planet. Over the years, though, I've become used to the scene and although I still find the summit a very special place and have certainly not become bored of the view, I find it harder and harder to see it the same way a first-time visitor might.

On the other hand, one place I rarely stop to take pictures, along with the tourists and visitors, is around the 11,000 to 12,000 foot level. You don't really know at this point how high you are because the mountain is so large it dominates everything and you can't see the horizon. It's also around this point, though, the visitors with a little knowledge of astronomy and our solar system tend to say that this place looks just like Mars, and it does!

The same red coloured rocks with a volcanic panorama really reminds one of those pictures taken by the Mars Rovers and previous NASA missions. If it wasn't for the blue sky and the odd clump of vegetation you could really let your imagination fly and believe you're on another planet.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Puna moon

Vog and clouds made the sky and moon look a little strange this evening. Whenever we have winds from the south they blow the vog from Kilauea volcano over us and often make the colours seen during sunrise and sunset extremely orange-looking. Even well after sunset the sky can take on an eerie brownish/red hue.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Winter's on its way

For those that haven't lived too long in Hawai`i the seasons are a subtle thing; it's generally always very warm during the day and warm at night all year round. In mid-winter the best advice is often to close a window or two to prevent those mid-60s temperatures from giving you a bit of a chill!

The same subtle change is often true at the summit of Mauna Kea although no day or night is warm, but there conditions can change a little more drastically. For instance, it's rare to get snow during the summer but watch out for those large snow drifts in January and February!

Bone-chilling night-time temperatures at this time of the year are usually the sign that we're into a new season, and boy was it cold the other night! There's no snow yet and we don't usually get much snowfall until December at the earliest. With this being an El Nino year, however, the chances of a lot of snow are reduced, but that doesn't stop the fairly marked drop in temperature at night, and you really feel it when the wind is blowing.

Or perhaps I'm just getting older...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A cloudy evening

Cirrus was all over the sky this evening and despite this the sunset wasn't a spectacular one as it usually is - the cloud hid the setting sun which meant the usual red colours were not to be seen. Oh well, there will be another time. Hualalai, in the meantime, looked pretty poking above the low level clouds at sunset.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Is there anybody out there?

One of the radio dishes of the VLBA looks out into space from Mauna Kea, Hawai`i.

The futuristic looking Mauna Kea Atmospheric Monitor, MKAM. I think I saw something like this in a Star Wars movie except it was walking!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Cinder cones

Anyone visiting Mauna Kea can't help but notice the mountain is littered with cinder cones. They are the result of volcanic activity and form after the initial rift zone eruptions which is how Hawaiian volcanoes behave typically. Magma is forced to the surface through large weak points and creates fissures and some spectacular lava fountains. After this initial activity magma escapes through specific weak points and cinder cones are formed which mark where individual eruptions have occurred.

Their structure tends to be relatively weak and they rarely grow to enormous heights, a thousand feet is a rough limit. Towards the end of an eruption the lava often breaks through one side of the cinder cone resulting in a horseshoe shaped structure. The red colour is a result of water being heated by magma and escaping through the cinder as steam. This oxidises the iron in the cinder, essentially turning it to rust (iron oxide).

There's a spot a mile or so along the dirt road above Hale Pohaku where the tour buses nearly always stop to allow the visitors to take photos of the saddle (the part of the island between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea - essentially a very large valley). This is actually really helpful for us as we often drive up to the summit at the same time the tour buses leave the Visitor Center for the same destination. They don't go as fast as we do although on the dirt road "fast" is a relative term! We always stick to the 25-mph speed limit of course...

Anyway, I'd never actually stopped at this spot before so took the opportunity to take in the view early on Saturday morning. The ancient cinder cones in the middle of the picture are now covered by vegetation so don't look so red these days! Above the cinder cones is the northern flank of Mauna Loa and its lava flows. The clouds are really just clouds and nothing to do with volcanic activity!

As ever, clicking on the pictures will give you a larger version.

The end of Paradise Drive

The end of Paradise Drive.

I've lived on the Big Island of Hawai`i for over thirteen years now but still haven't got a clue when someone gives me directions. It's always left at Hualani-kamaaina and when you get to Kakahi-hipohaliburt turn right onto Pohoholokohuiholui-lo-puna-bruddha where you'll see the turn off for Lanahaihuapiu-kantpronounceit street. Just follow Hipi-aha'na'iloa-kai-lo'lo-lost'me-now and you might find the parking lot for Walmart if you're lucky.

I can't take my eyes off this picture. It was taken at the end of Paradise Drive. I know it's overdone and all that, but I can't stop looking at it.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Dawn at 14,000 feet: II

Just one or two more photos from the summit at sunrise on a Saturday morning. Above, the mountain in the background is the volcano Hualalai. It's considered a potentially dangerous volcano by the USGS because even though it hasn't erupted for a few hundred years it'll likely erupt again and there are several towns nearby. Unlike most of the other Hawaiian volcanoes, it has an occasional tendency to erupt violently in a similar manner to infamous volcanoes like Mt St Helens although on a somewhat smaller scale. John, over at "Kona - a pedestrian view", often hikes the slopes of this volcano.

The slope to the right is Pu`u Poli`ahu, a cinder cone near Mauna Kea's summit. It almost looked as though it had an eruption of light which was flowing down its eastern flank!

My favourite telescope - the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). The strange looking "windows" on the side of the dome are part of the dome ventilation system (DVS). During normal operations these are opened early in the evening to allow the outside air to blow through the dome and help equalise the inside and outside air temperatures. This reduces local turbulence, especially in the first few hours of the night and has been a great success in improving delivered image quality. For me, it's strange seeing the DVS closed as I tend to be around in the evening when it's nearly always open!

Subaru to the left and the twin Kecks plus the morning shadow of Mauna Kea. Although things will change in the next few years, you don't tend to see ground-based optical-infrared telescopes bigger than these!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Dawn at 14,000 feet

It's usually around this time that we're starting our journey down from the summit of Mauna Kea after a long night observing; freezing our butts off waiting for the car's engine to warm up enough to provide a little heat into the cabin. We've typically been working for 14 or 15 hours by this stage in a physically unpleasant environment, are very tired and the last thing on my mind, usually, is taking nice sunrise pictures!

This morning was a little different though and for a change took a few snapshots at dawn. Of course one main differences about watching a sunrise from the summit is that the sun rises above the clouds rather than the ocean or land, but sunset is similar except that obviously the sun isn't rising!

On Mauna Kea, though, I think the main differences are the colours, and that's probably just due to my usual spot on the mountain where I'm looking west most of the time to see the other interesting things. At sunrise, these are the places that receive that fascinating colour of light you only see at sunrise or sunset. Since Mauna Kea is a predominantly reddish/brown colour, the yellow/red light from the sun low in the sky emphasises those colours.

Above, the Subaru observatory (left) and Keck 1 are in the shadow of the mountain. You've seen pictures of mine showing this shadow, but almost exclusively at sunset when the shadow is in the east. This time it was in the west and situated perfectly behind these two telescopes!

As the sun rose a little higher, the shadow grew smaller but that just meant the edge happened to fall right across the telescopes on the western ridge. The colours this created around Keck 2 (left) and the NASA IRTF were incredible! You can even see the shadow of the IRTF on the Keck dome.

I've a few more photos to show from early this morning, but they'll have to wait for a bit. I've got used to processing shots taken at sunset but the unusual experience of taking photos at dawn on the mountain means I've not quite got one or two things right, so will have to spend a little more time on them than usual. Here's a quick preview though!

Distant Haleakala II

Another shot of Haleakala on Maui, this one taken on the following evening from the other one and from a slightly different location although still on the summit! To the left is Keck 2 and on the right is the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility.

Again this was taken well after sunset but I was in a real hurry yesterday evening - it was going to be a busy night and we started off badly with an electronics problem that we had to address in order to obtain decent data. While we were attempting something, I dashed outside, mainly to check the conditions before it was too dark to tell and quickly shot a couple of photos of the most interesting thing I saw. No time for a tripod even, I just had to improvise! These two images were then stitched together to create this small panorama of an evening view from Mauna Kea.

It was a fantastic night in the end, it was very dark due to the new moon and the Milky Way was strung above our heads across the entire sky and easily visible to the naked eye. If only I had a decent low-light camera!

Just for a change I managed to take a few pictures at sunrise this morning. Shock horror. I don't think that'll happen again for a while. One or two of those to come later...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Distant Haleakala

The summit of Haleakala, about 80 miles away from Mauna Kea's summit and on the island of Maui. This was taken a good ten minutes after sunset. I'm hoping that one day soon I'll reverse this shot and take a picture of Mauna Kea from Haleakala! It's been many years since I've visited Maui.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A quick summit visit

I just went up for a couple of hours this evening; I'm acclimatising to the altitude again as it's been a long time since I was last on Mauna Kea. Unfortunately for the photographers up there the sky was absolutely clear, not a high cloud in sight and that means the sunsets tend to be quite boring, at least to those that have seen the odd one before! Still, clear skies mean excellent observing, so the astronomers will be happy tonight.

Cinder cones and Mauna Kea's shadow in the east.

Subaru (left) and one of the Kecks at sunset.

As I've mentioned on the odd occasion in the past, my camera is very poor in low light conditions but the view from Hale Pohaku at the 9,000 foot level when I came down was stunning - it was the Milky way just about to set in the west. I'm fairly certain this is the Galactic Centre as it's about the right time of year for it to be setting just after sunset. The lights at the bottom left are from the Visitor Center where the volunteers were already showing the night sky to tonight's visitors.

Welcome back, I'm off to bed

I had a hell of a time getting them in the carrier for their "holiday" and an even harder time when it was time to bring them back home. My two cats are really a couple of fruitcakes when it comes to intelligence but they know how to look cute when necessary.

Eddie is really good at this stuff. After spending a couple of hours making sure the house was as she left it she wouldn't leave me alone. Bubbles, on the other hand, vanished. She was really pissed off and decided to continue her sulk outside. She has a lot to learn. Curl up next to a human and make the occasional meow sound - it's to hard to ignore even if you drool!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Back to work

I'm heading back up to Mauna Kea after what seems an awfully long time away from the summit - in fact I think it was the middle of August when I was last there. It'll be nice to get back to that oxygen-deprived altitude as it's such an extraordinary place and it's also where I do my best work despite the conditions - I'm an observational astronomer with some expertise in infrared astronomy and there are few places better on our planet to do that kind of work!

Strange as it may seem, the problem I appear to be suffering from is that I become more stupid as a function of time spent at sea level. I drove to work today with the camera in my car since it was such a beautiful day thinking that I'll take a few pictures on the way back home. I knew the memory card wasn't in the camera so I'd need to fetch it while getting ready for the new day and I knew the camera battery needed a charge.

Did I do either? Nope. I remembered to bring the camera with me though so I'm not a completely hopeless idiot, but when I saw an interesting sunset near home and got the camera out to take a few pictures, I was utterly dismayed. The battery charge was really quite low and worse, I could only store pictures to the internal memory. That's about 9 shots.

OK, I thought, let's work around the problem. There was no way I was ever going to take that stunning picture that I'd want to make into a huge poster, so reduced the image quality setting in the camera. Now I can take 20 pictures! Unfortunately my ratio of photos taken to decent pictures is extraordinarily high, so I had to concentrate a little more than I normally do.

Fortunately the battery lasted but this wasn't the picture I was really after. I like it though and now the memory card is back in the camera and the battery is on charge. I must remember to change the quality setting back though, and I bet I won't. (I need the battery back in the camera to do that, so can't do it right now!).

There's an acronym I think I posted about in the past that photographers should use to remind themselves about all the things they need to do before they go out taking pictures. Unfortunately, I can't remember what that acronym is. Even if I did, I doubt I'd remember what the letters represent. I need to get back to 14,000 feet.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The invisible man

The food isn't bad but I felt just a little too long in the tooth for this place...

Pele's plume

Have you ever gone on a field trip and nothing went right? That happened this weekend when I drove up to the Volcanoes National Park in Hawai`i hoping to take some night time shots of the glow from Kilauea's summit. It had been a beautiful day and I thought I could take a few photos of Kilauea Iki and some sunset shots of Kilauea's summit before trying to take some pictures at night.

Kilauea's Iki's shots were horribly boring when I finally got to look at them at home and every night shot I took of the crater was a nasty mess of electronic noise with a bit of red glow in the corner. Unfortunately, despite the wonderful weather during the day, clouds were hanging around Kilauea which ruined the Iki shots and the glow from the lava deep below the surface was exceptionally weak. I had a really nice chat with one of the rangers at the Jaggar Museum on the edge of Kilauea's crater though. He'd set up one of the small telescopes so it was pointing at Jupiter and its moons rather than the crater, and to be honest this seemed to create much more interest with the visitors than the active volcano and vent nearby! I wish I asked for his name, he was such an interesting chap! He had quite an interest in astronomy so we had a little in common.

Well, although it's not my favourite shot, at least I came away with something - the Kilauea summit area and volcanic plume at sunset. I'm going to try again though, but will wait until the glow from the vent is a little stronger!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Split pea soup? No thanks

I had the pleasure of dining at this place twice - once from LA to Monterey and once on the way back. It's conveniently placed for someone driving the 350 miles between those two places and I'm told it has some history as well as having advertising signs on the side of the highway hundreds of miles away.

I can confirm that at least driving down from Northern California there is the odd sign well over a hundred miles away. What that sign doesn't tell you is that split pea soup is possibly the most disgusting and vomit-inducing liquid the human race has ever concocted. I didn't order it, fortunately, but my travel partner did, so I took a taste. It was like those disgusting mushy peas you can get in northern British fish and chip shops and something I never understood when it came to Lancashire cuisine despite living there for several years - mushy peas are utterly revolting. So is split pea soup.

Next time I visit California, and I will as I fell in love with the place, it won't include a spot of lunch here. There's some Austrian blood in me and one of my favourite meals is schnitzel and looking at the menu they did this as well - except it came with mushroom gravy. That just isn't right. To top it off, the potato salad, which you must have with schnitzel, was the Americanised version with mayonnaise.

Well, at least I can say I've been to a famous restaurant. Twice.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Target practice

This isn't a particularly beautiful picture but it's interesting and is the first I've ever taken from an aeroplane. We were at 35,000 ft over Newfoundland heading from Boston to London and I just happened to look outside and saw this rainbow. The flight had hardly any passengers, it might have been because it was on the 8th anniversary of 9/11 and few people wanted to fly across the Atlantic that day, I don't know, but it was wonderful to have so much room!

It meant I could get the camera out from the overhead locker and try a shot through the window. What's the dark line leading to the rainbow? It's actually a shadow of our aircraft's contrail.

If I was some nutty conspiracy theorist I guess I could post something about this being the aircraft's targeting system for releasing its chemtrail and thereby assisting the government to control everyone's mind down below, except I don't think too many people live at this particular spot so it was clearly a waste of mind-altering chemicals.

"In an English country garden"

Apologies for the somewhat misleading title, these are pictures I promised to put on my blog and were taken in my mum's garden when I visited during my trip back to the UK last month. She has put in an extraordinary amount of work into the garden and it looks stunning. So not only did I have the pleasure of being home with my mum again but with the Indian summer the UK experienced, we were able to sit out in a very beautiful garden - it might as well have been in the English countryside.

For those unfamiliar with the song, here's a version of "In an English Country Garden" - we knew it very well at school except the lyrics we sang were a littler ruder than this! It comes with a warning though - it's sung by Rolf Harris.

According to my mum the flowers were just past their best but I found that hard to believe. As usual, though, I haven't a clue what any of them are but you can click on the pictures to get larger versions - I recognised the sunflowers by the way!

Incidentally, that photo at the top was taken late at night just before I sat down to watch "Match of the Day" on a Saturday evening - it's strange what you discover you miss most when you live so far away from where you grew up.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Monterey memories

Perhaps I don't get away from the islands enough but whenever I do it always results in a wonderful trip with very special memories. There's occasional travel due to work of course and my recent trip was mostly that, but for a change there was a little vacation time tagged on the end which I have to admit I really needed. My last vacation away from Hawai`i was in 2005 so it's been a little while!

So here are one or two more pictures from the trip, all of them, in this instance, from Cannery Row in Monterey, CA, where we were lodged. Fortunately it wasn't the tourist season since I'm led to believe this place becomes a little intolerable then, but even so I'm already planning to return soon, perhaps even as early as the middle of next year. The hotel we stayed at was simply stunning and that might not happen next time as it isn't the cheapest place to stay, but sometimes it's good to splurge a little!

It was due to jet lag mostly, but I tended to wake up at around 5am each day although that meant I could go out when no one else was around. Fortunately I brought some tea bags from the UK with me and combined with the paper cups the hotel supplied I could wander outside with my camera and a nice hot cup of tea. Heaven!

This is outdoors dining at the "C" restaurant at The Clement Monterey which wasn't a popular option during the visit but it did get quite cool at night so I'm not surprised. The menu looked wonderful but for various reasons we never dined here despite it being the hotel we stayed at. Maybe next time.

Cannery Row at night complete with invisible car. This was taken from just outside my favourite pub!

Same again but from the other side of the street. I need to check this but I believe it's called Cannery Row because in the first half of the last century this is where all the fisherman brought their sardines back from the bay which were then processed and canned here. The factories have now been converted into tourist shops, cafes and restaurants. Times have changed, haven't they?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

What a strange sight

I followed my software's advice and took a sunset shot this evening. Actually, the sky looked very unusual so am glad I took a photo, it made a change from the sunny skies that followed me to Scotland, England and then California!

The weird diagonal shadow thing is real, it's what caught my attention. I'd have loved to have seen this sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea but for now I'll make do with the odd shot from home!