Wednesday, 31 March 2010

California Dreamin'

This time tomorrow I'll be on my way. I found the following video (by MusicmakesUsmile) on YouTube, it seemed appropriate!

Coincidentally, I'm flying with American!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Two more days...

...and I'll be heading off on a vacation I need more than any time I can remember. This trip allows a little more time to take in the sights compared to my last visit (a quick detour on the way back home from the UK), but it'll certainly lighten my wallet. It'll be worth it though, central California has to be among the most beautiful places on our planet.

PS. Since we're visiting Cambria CA. for a couple of nights, there is no way anyone is going to stop me from visiting this place - it seems more English than England, a real home away from home!

Cornish pasty or a ploughman's? Tough choice.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Waxing or waning?

I was asked an interesting question today. One I admit I've never really thought about too much. The question was this: if you haven't seen the moon for a few months and then suddenly you had a clear night and saw a quarter moon in the sky, could you tell if it was waxing or waning?

(Waxing means going from a new moon to a full moon, waning means the opposite).

The answer is actually very simple if you like those rule of thumb things but he doesn't want to know the answer right yet because he wants to see what other people say. So I won't give the answer here, or at least not in this post. If you feel like commenting with your answer though, feel free!

Although the answer is simple it depends whether you're in the northern or southern hemisphere and you're a little stuffed if you live on or near the equator! So I think I have a general answer as well which should work no matter where you are. I'm sure this is in Google somewhere but I promise I haven't looked (yet!). You need to know west from east, though, or at least where the sun sets or where it rises with respect to your location.

As for the above shot (with some nice earthshine), it was taken just after sunset from home looking roughly to the west. Is it a waxing or waning moon? You have enough information to answer the question!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

It's not long now...

...before I'll be in a place like this, with my English accent, and with people I don't know.

Actually, I'd simply be happy with a decent beer or two during the meal and a nice cup of tea afterwards. I don't want any of those Californian wines costing $100 per bottle unless someone else pays for them.

The clip is from the movie LA Story starring Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant. It was never one of my favourite Steve Martin movies but it has grown on me over the last two or three years.

PS. I can't stand coffee!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Keck 2 and Haleakala

I'm running out of pictures again. In fact, I'm running out of energy as well. This has been an unpleasant week and coupled with the last three months I'm just desperate for a break - getting off the island is a priority and just a week or two away from the stress at work will be more than welcome. Fortunately, I have a trip to California planned and I'll be there soon!

Anyway, this is a picture of Keck 2 with the Haleakala volcano in the background. As ever, I just love the clouds, especially from 14,000 feet. There's something special about viewing them from above rather than the views most people get from below. Despite all the things that have been happening recently, I know I'm rather fortunate to see this view. In a few months time I might not be witnessing the same views quite as often.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Opening for business

I posted this picture of Gemini with UKIRT in the background the other day but since then I had a little time to improve it while at sea level. Working at altitude often means your brain operates at somewhat less than 100% efficiency! Click on it for a larger view.

At around the same time Gemini was opening, the twin Kecks opened as well. The sky behind them off to the west wasn't encouraging especially as that's the direction high-level clouds tend to come from, but in the end the clouds drifted to the south overnight and it turned out to be quite a good night's observing.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The summit

Although I always go on about working at the summit of Mauna Kea, the true summit has no telescopes on it at all. You can visit it as long as you walk the trail and can handle the lack of oxygen. It's a longer hike than you might imagine!

Then again, you can just admire the view or if you're desperate, just click on the pictures.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Hexagonal sunset


Click on the photo for a larger version. I took a bunch of photos in yet another failed attempt to catch the green flash and they all showed a rather hexagonal-looking sun. What gives?

Looking through the clouds

During the eighteen months or so of this blog's existence I've occasionally described the conflict I have about clear skies versus cloudy ones. Clouds make for beautiful pictures at sunset and sunrise (see above) but also have the potential for ruining our astronomical observations.

In the comment section of "Less wind, more cloud", my good friend Keera asked if we could observe through clouds and wondered what the point of building telescopes on a high mountain is in the first place. (I apologise for the paraphrase!). My unhelpful answer was yes and no.

The quick answer is that optical/infrared telescopes can only "look through clouds" if they are thin enough to allow light from whatever they're looking at to pass through them. Clouds attenuate light from a star and if there's enough attenuation, the telescope won't see the star. This is where things get complicated however. If the cloud is thick and no starlight gets through, then we give up and go home. If some starlight gets through, then there are still often things that we can do, but trying to measure how bright a star is can get tricky.

In our case, we use a camera that has a very large field of view (FOV) which means that we often see enough stars in our images that at least one or two of them already have very accurate photometry (brightness measurements) from 2MASS. That means we can see what the cloud does to the brightness of the known stars and can use that information to deduce the brightness of the other stars in the field, i.e., use them as calibrators. This can get difficult though because having such a large FOV means that the thickness of the cloud can vary from one part of the image to the other. If the cloud is so thick we can't see the calibrators, or even any other star, then it's time for bed!

Being rather familiar with infrared astronomy, I know of further problems. Although our current setup doesn't involve this, observing in the thermal infrared (beyond a wavelength of around 2.3 microns) becomes almost impossible if there's cloud. Mauna Kea is one of the best sites on the planet for thermal infrared astronomy but if there's cloud above the summit then it's another early night. High altitude clouds emit infrared radiation at exactly these wavelengths due to their cold temperature, so instead of detecting stars, even the thinnest of clouds will shine so brightly that it overwhelms the light from a star. Some years ago I spent much of my time commissioning a mid-infrared instrument on UKIRT and Gemini called Michelle and learned quickly that it was a superb cloud detector!

On the other hand, some telescopes on Mauna Kea benefit from high cirrus clouds. As I'm sure my readers know, clouds are made from water. Most clouds, those at low and mid-level, consist of water vapour and tend to be below Mauna Kea's summit. High clouds, i.e., cirrus, tend to occur at 20-30,000 feet where it's so cold that water turns to ice and that's what these clouds are made of. That's bad news for infrared astronomy because they shine very brightly but our submillimeter colleagues down in the valley (e.g., JCMT and CSO) thrive in these conditions!

Submillimiter telescopes require dry conditions because they are excellent water detectors. That's why they're built in high places like Mauna Kea because they're above most of the water in the atmosphere. So you might ask why they thrive when there are clouds made of water above them? Simple. Water molecules vibrate and rotate and these give off wavelengths we can detect (it's a quantum mechanics thing). Their vibrations can be detected in the infrared and the rotational transitions in the submillimeter. The thing is, if they're frozen then they can no longer rotate. That means the sky is almost transparent to the submillimeter guys. They can, unfortunately, still vibrate, which is what us unfortunate infrared astronomers see instead...

Maybe you can see why my answer to Keera was yes and no!

Oh well, those bad nights for infrared astronomy means I get to take some nice pictures.

Hualalai in the clouds and vog.

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

Friday, 19 March 2010

Cirrus to the south

It's another night of very high winds, sometimes gusting to 50-mph. Although the winds are a problem, the clouds above us have cleared and at sunset were only visible in the southern sky above Mauna Loa. They made for a very attractive colour as the sun went down but it seems we just can't get a decent night at the moment. It's either clouds, winds or as some observers experienced recently, fog and ice.

Once again I took few photos this evenining and only in the shelter of the domes. That windchill can give you a nasty frostbite!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Less wind, more cloud

Tonight the wind has dropped to a bearable 20-mph but the clouds that have been threatening us to the west have arrived as you can see in the picture above. From left to right, Subaru, the Kecks and the NASA IRTF. To my left, Gemini was opening for the night and in the distance to the right, UKIRT has the main shutter open as well as the dome ventilation system to help cool off the dome for the night's first observations. The clouds will make it hard work tonight.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Windy sunset

40mph winds gusting to 50mph made this evening interesting at the summit, and certainly stopped any serious attempt at taking decent photos. The sunset was nice which has been unusual so far this year so took a quick shot while trying to stay out of the really icy blasts. I'd have liked to get more in on the right hand side but all you would see is the wall of UKIRT which I was using as shelter from the wind!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Just my luck

Not one of my best photos but that's Keck 2 to the left and Haleakala volcano off in the distance on the island of Maui. The 35-mph winds made sure the picture wasn't as sharp as I'd like. I'm back on the mountain shortly but this year has been awful for good sunsets up there due to El Nino. The forecast has some high cloud coming in over the next few days so thought I'd get a chance to take some beautiful sunset shots, but the forecast also includes winds of 35-mph and upwards and chances of fog and ice.

Oh well, I'll get to watch the tourists freeze instead!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Falling in love again or magical Monterey

It's just over a couple of weeks before I fly east to my favourite place in the world, the Central California coast. I fell in love with the place last time and hope to do the same this time round. It's a shame it's so expensive but I need a little luxury after the last few months. I've booked a few nights at the place above, the InterContinental Clement Monterey which is the most beautiful (and expensive) hotel I've ever stayed at. To get there, though, I'm being forced to endure visiting Santa Barbara, Cambria's Moon Stone Beach and the Santa Cruz mountains as well.

I think I'll cope.

The Clement Monterey from the boardwalk.

Taken from the hotel room balcony- boats on their way out at dawn

From the balcony again pre-dawn.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Monterey montage

I can't wait. The last few months have been filled with stress and in the last year I've taken a massive four days of vacation. The cure involves surprising my credit card company by spending a lot of money on a proper holiday. No doubt I've triggered all their security warnings and will be dealing with them for the next couple of days, but I'll be back in Monterey, California, next month.

The town completely captivated me during those four days of vacation last year. OK, it has to be one of the most expensive places to visit on the planet, but I don't do this off-island vacation thing often and I think it'll be worth it.

Maybe I can improve on the above sunrise panorama during the trip! (Click on it for a larger view).

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Jeeze, I won't do that again

Tonight I told the old girls that I scheduled their next visit to the vet and I'm going to be away for a couple of weeks soon. Maybe it would have been better if I hadn't said anything...

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On a lighter note...

Another piece of political satire from Clarke and Dawe.

The future of UKIRT

Well, the news is out now so at least I can say something about this, but not everything of course. As you might imagine there's still plenty going on behind the scenes. What I can tell you is the last three months have been among the most stressful of my life although that is not all down to UKIRT's funding issues, as I mentioned here.

In December we were told UKIRT faced closure and in fact the STFC said this would happen in April this year (2010), i.e., next month. This soon changed to the end of 2010 which of course was better news for the staff but still grave. Now the news is that UKIRT will continue to operate until at least March 2012 which allow UKIDSS to continue and perhaps come close to completion. This comes at a cost though and potentially a very serious one for many members of staff because the mode of operation will have to be changed drastically which also means a potential loss of staff positions. This new mode is to be called the "minimalist mode".

While all this is going on, UKIRT is still seeking partners. The observatory already has agreements with two or three organisations and countries and the hope is some of these will be expanded plus there is news of some new and potentially significant interest from at least one other organisation. That's about all I can say for the moment though. If new partnerships happen or current funding is increased, then the hope is, of course, that the minimalist mode won't occur. It won't be known for sometime if this will happen though which of course increases the stress all the members of staff are feeling.

On a slightly different matter, today I found out that one of my photos, the one below (at least I think so) was displayed all day on the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory screens and in an STFC staff newsletter. I hope I was given the proper credit! I can't tell though as I'm not employed directly by the STFC so can't see the newsletter. Oh well, I'm sure they did the right thing...

Monday, 8 March 2010


Well, there's "sunset" and "sunrise", how about "sunblast"? It's when the photographer gets it wrong and points their camera at a bright sun and gets unintended results. Actually, although the sky is completely blasted out around the sun in the above picture (it looks a little like a nuclear explosion over the Pacific, doesn't it?) I liked the way the clouds were illuminated and the reflections in the camera's lens. Pu`u Poli`ahu is the cinder cone in the foreground.

Not such a dramatic or interesting effect as the first picture but I like the way the rays from the setting sun look. Pu`u Poli`ahu again to the right and the Hualalai volcano in the middle distance.

As always, you can click on the pictures for larger versions.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

As far as the eye can see...

"A cloud does not know why it moves in such a direction and at such speed. It feels an impulsion...this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons."

Richard Bach.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

All about emissions trading schemes

More from Clarke and Dawe. Never ask a politician to explain things, especially science! (What's the opposite of "man exploits man"?).

There's a phrase I detest more than most and it's "going forward". Here you can see why:

Mauna Kea sunrise surprise

I revisited a few photos of mine using this newfangled panorama software of mine and it seems to work, at least it isn't making things worse. Click the picture to tell me where it's screwed up!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

What a wave can do

Some of you might wonder what all the fuss has been with the 3-foot tsunami waves that "hit" the islands on Saturday. Well, if you aren't careful, there's a one in a million chance it'll take the front off a supertanker and will require its removal from the environment.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

You get what you pay for

Dave from Kailua-Kona pointed me to some photography panorama software after I got a little fed up with Hugin. His advise was PTgui which isn't free (actually, it's quite expensive) but apparently is Very Good. I used to think that of Hugin so wasn't particularly optimistic.

So, here are two panoramas from just outside UKIRT taken a couple of weeks ago. I took four photos at four different positions. At each position I used Photomatix to create a fused image with exactly the same settings. Those four final images were then used to create a panorama using Hugin and PTgui.

It was just a quick go at capturing Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea's summit in one go while staying out of the 40-mph winds! Bear in mind that the PTgui version has watermarks all over it as it was the free trial version. Click on the images for the larger versions - the comparison will be clearer!

The final image from Hugin:

The final image from PTgui (with watermarks):

There's no comparison. I've put in an order with PTgui!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Videos from Tsunami Saturday

Although in the end the tsunami that reached the Hawaiian islands on Saturday from the earthquake in Chile was relatively small, the events that day were certainly memorable, especially for those of us living in the many evacuation zones. The news from Chile continues to worsen as the situation becomes clearer and of course all our thoughts go out to those affected there by the tragedy. Thankfully the loss of life wasn't as great as it could have been or spread around the Pacific and Pacific rim.

One of my favourite island news sites is Big Island Video News run by Dave Corrigan. Here are some recent videos of the events in the Hilo area from that site and for those not familiar with the area, please enjoy the views of the beautiful Hilo area:

VIDEO: Hawaii Island prepares, waits for tsunami - (5 min 24 secs, video by Dave Corrigan) - The preparations begin and an interview with Hawaii Island mayor Billy Kenoi. The sound of the warning sirens right at the start of the video still bring me chills because you know the evacuation is for real when you hear them.

VIDEO: Hawaii Mayor reflects on tsunami - (5 min 27 secs, video by Dave Corrigan) - Billy Kenoi's press conference after the all clear was given. It includes the reasoning behind sounding the warning sirens when they did.

VIDEO: Early morning tsunami scramble in Hilo - (2 mins 42 secs, video by Tim Bryan) - The evacuation begins.

VIDEO: Bird's eye view of tsunami surge in Hilo - (1 min 53 secs, video by Dave Corrigan, Tim Bryan & Baron Sekiya) - My favourite of the four videos. Billy Kenoi gets a ride in a Black Hawk helicopter and some beautiful shots of the Hilo Bay area including the effects of the tsunami on the water in the bay and Coconut Island. It was such a beautiful and clear day as well with Mauna Kea easily visible from Hilo and Puna.

Whatever people think about the whole thing, especially the initial predictions of large waves that proved to be wrong, I think this ended up being a very useful exercise for everyone. There have been some civil defense tsunami exercises in the last year or so but of course they couldn't actually include a real evacuation, but this did. I think everyone has learned a lot of lessons from this event but to be honest it was handled extremely well and the evacuation was fairly flawless.