|Posted by Trevor Barry on February 3, 2010 at 1:37 AM|
From Broken Hill to the Kecks
By Trevor Barry
2008 was a most memorable year for me as an amateur astronomer, I am a very ordinary bloke. I left school after year 10 to take up an apprenticeship with CRA on one of the local mines, working there for the next 34 years. I have had numerous teachers that have attended my observatory with their students correct my mispronunciation of various words. Apparently I have problems with “galaxy”, I get the distinct impression that certain, of the better educated, particularly in the astro community frown on my grasp of English.
Frankly I don’t see astronomy as an elitist field and direct all of my energies to raising the profile of astronomy with the 99% of our population that have not yet discovered the joy and stimulation that astronomy can offer.
Following on from the recognition by NASA of my support of the Cassini mission, by supplying my image data of the longest lived storm on Saturn, it lasted for 7 months and I imaged it 169 times, extraordinary things have happened to me with Radio, TV and print media around the world covering my story, some of them were even accurate, culminating with the ABC Catalyst, Eureka Awards for Science special. I thought that was the pinnacle and that things, simply could get no better, but I was wrong!!.
From the moment my old Swinburne unit instructor, Professor Duncan Forbes, offered me a place on his next observing run with Keck II the excitement started to build. Duncan was taking two PHD students, Caroline Foster a French Canadian from Quebec and Max Spolaor from Italy for two nights observing with Keck II. Duncan was hoping to use the DEIMOS spectrograph to record the spectra of globular clusters associated with four different galaxies, measure there motions and from that infer the amount of dark matter in the halos of those galaxies.
Duncan had been my final unit instructor when I did my Graduate Cert of Sc in Astronomy at Swinburne, he had given me my highest essay mark for a paper on “The Distance to our Galactic Centre” he deducted one mark. Duncan was offering four other places to interested Swinburne alumni, when he contacted me there were still three places available and following discussion with my family I decided to go.
As an amateur astronomer and ex mine worker from Broken Hill in the remote outback of Australia, an opportunity to observe on the pre-eminent telescope of our time was such an honour and privilege and proved to be a truly humbling experience. As the departure date approached I went right past a state of mere excitement, my wife suggested packing ear plugs for the trip for Duncan’s sake.
The paper work I had to fill out for the W.M.Keck Observatory was somewhat daunting, listing all of the symptoms of altitude sickness and the possible consequences, even death from cerebral oedema, I signed their waver and packed ready to go.
Oct 24th. Our local air service to Sydney, where I would meet up with Duncan to fly out for Honolulu, was REX and they had been cancelling flights at short notice due to pilot shortage, so I flew to Sydney two days early, just in case they cancelled a flight. I stayed with relatives at Berowra Heights and managed a trip into Bintel to pick up a T-ring adaptor for my Canon 450D. It was great to catch up with the guys I normally talk to only on the phone.
Oct 26th. Departure day arrived, I was at the Sydney International Terminal at 4 pm, our flight was to leave at 7:55 pm, yep that was early but I was very fired up. This was my first trip out of Australia and it was all new for me. Duncan’s flight from Melbourne was late and he didn’t arrive with his students in tow until just before the gate to our Qantas 767 opened. Caroline and Max were both delightful young people, I loved their accents.
We left Sydney in the evening of Sunday Oct 26th, it was a long flight but I was too excited to sleep, the cabin crew plied us with food and drink and eventually we arrived in Honolulu at about 9 am the morning of the same day we left, bit of a problem this international dateline thing. It sure is a long walk from the International to the Domestic terminal at Honolulu airport, when going through customs and security there were armed officers everywhere.
We boarded our Hawaiian Air Boeing 717 for Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, home to the biggest time machine on Earth, the twin Keck telescopes, at 14,000 ft atop the summit of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is the tallest peak on Earth when measured from its base on the sea floor, just over 34,000 ft, about a mile taller than Everest. It had been raining when we landed in Honolulu and there was fairly dense cloud cover on the way to Kona, as we approached Kona the peak of Mauna Kea was just poking through the cloud. The Kona side of the island was very stark, solidified black lava flows running down from the hills; the airstrip was actually built on a lava flow.
At Kona airport we met up with one of the other Swinburne alumni Errol Malta from Melbourne. We all headed off to hire cars for our visit, Duncan and Max got 4wd’s for our visit to the summit, then, with Duncan in the lead we headed off in convoy for our accommodation at Jacaranda Inn in Waimea at 3,000 ft. I must admit to a bit of trepidation with driving on the right hand side of the road, but it all worked out in the end. After checking us in at Jacaranda Inn, Duncan and his students proceeded to the Keck HQ, at their remote control rooms in Waimea. This would be where we would observe from.
Oct 27th. The next morning Duncan, Max and Caroline arrived with the two 4wd’s, Marcus Wigan had arrived from the USA the previous night and there was also another Postdoctoral Fellow from Swinburne Dr Sarah Brough that had arrived early. Sarah was to be observing with Professor Warrich Couch, another Swinburne researcher two nights after we finished. It really is excellent for astronomy in this country that Swinburne has negotiated 15 nights + 5 collaborative nights a year for five years with Caltech on the Keck’s. Swinburne is the only Australian University to have a time allocation at the W.M.Keck Observatory.
We picked up some supplies for lunch in Waimea and headed off up the Saddle road that splits the centre of the island, this road or track is extremely narrow very windy with many dips and crests. It was ounce bitumen but there is not much of it left now. The terrain got ever more rugged with the slopes of Mauna Kea rising on our left and the slopes of Mauna Loa on our right.
There was very little vegetation a truly stark vista, dominated by solidified lava flows. About 3 miles from the turnoff to Mauna Kea we hit a new section of sealed road then we turned off onto the dirt road for the climb to 9,000 ft, where we would stop for a light lunch and to acclimatize to the altitude at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Ellison Onizuka was the first Hawaiian astronaut and he lost his life when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28th 1986.
Rehydration is critical at altitude so we all had water bottles that we regularly sipped from, following the advice we had received with the Keck documentation I popped a 500 mg aspirin, as did Marcus and we headed off in 4wd for the very slow assent to 14,000 ft. The view on the way up was amazing, ochre red cinder cones contrasted with grey lava flows that was a jumble of cracked and broken material. The road was quite skatey and the view just got ever more alien as we rose through the clouds, it could have been another planet, definitely like nothing else on Earth.
Nothing can prepare you for what awaits at the summit, we were now above the thick cumulus cloud layer, we came around a bend, over a crest and there before us were the Keck’s shining brilliantly white against a blue sky. There was a little high altitude cirrus above us but with the rest of the island hidden from view below the blanket of cumulus, we could indeed have been on another world.
We pulled up in front of the Keck’s, with 40 % less oxygen than at sea level we were supposed to take things slowly, I pinched myself to make sure it was real, that I had arrived and this was really happening. Words seem totally inadequate to describe my feelings I was in a state of euphoria as I looked around trying to take it all in. The majesty of the Keck’s before me, Subaru, Gemini North, The Canada France Hawaii telescope the James Clerk Maxwell and more.
I stood reflecting on the history of astronomy, a tear in my eye, the work and efforts of all that contributed to astronomy over hundreds of years had culminated in what lay before me, the absolute pinnacle of modern astronomy was on this peak.
We entered the Keck observatory, cleaned the bottoms of our shoes on the mandatory sticky mats, there to reduce the ingress of dust into the observatory and were met by Bill Healy, a Keck veteran, then led to their meeting room come kitchen area where Bill went through all of the symptoms of altitude sickness and their ramifications, the importance of staying hydrated, the symptoms that may require oxygen or even evacuation to sea level.
We were then off on our tour, starting with the control rooms where the astronomers used to operate from before the remote control rooms were built back at Keck HQ in Waimea. I got to try out the chair at the controls of Keck I. We then entered the lift to take us up into the Keck I observatory at the level of the telescope. I commented to Bill that my mass was, in fact, not contributing to the load on the lift as I was on such a high that I felt like I was floating.
The lift stopped, the door opened and there it was, what a piece of engineering only a matter of a few feet away, this was indeed a world away from my observatory in Broken Hill.
The temperature was much lower in the dome, each night when the observatory opens, the temperature is logged, then, at the end of the night when the dome is closed the thermostats for the domes refrigerated air conditioning are set 2 degrees C lower. Thus when the dome opens on the next night the thermal mass of the mirrors is already down to temperature.
The hexagonal mirror segments making up the primary with the massive amount of structural steel supporting them and the elaborate array of actuators for the adaptive optics under the mirrors was most impressive. The mirror segments themselves were surprisingly thin, not Pyrex but ceramic.
Beside the telescope, on our level was a simply massive infrared camera the size of a jet engine. Bill gathered us all up and back down in the lift we went to the corridor that separates the two Keck’s. At each end of this corridor, which was about 40 m long were double doors with the Roman numeral (I) at one end and (II) at the other end. Bill led us into the Keck Machine Room and then the Keck Machine Shop. I loved the machine shop. I started on the Broken Hill Mines as an apprentice Fitter & Machinist and felt right at home in here.
Bill then showed us the mask cutting room where a specialized milling machine cut the slits in the aluminium masks to be used on the various spectrographs that are available to visiting astronomers at the Keck’s. He even identified one of the masks we would use on the DEIMOS spectrograph on our two observing nights. We were able to photograph Max and Caroline holding the masks that they would later use.
Then came our absolute highlight, we re-entered the lift and went up into the Keck II observatory, the telescope we would use and as we stood there in awe of this stunning marvel of technology & engineering, the operators slewed the scope so that we could photograph our reflections in the primary mirror of the largest telescope on Earth.
How did that feel, amazing and incredible just don’t cut it. It was just sheer exhilaration, to be an amateur and be where I was at that moment is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
While with Keck II we were also able to photograph the DEIMOS spectrograph that we would later use.
Bill then took us deep down below the observatories to the equipment in the tunnel connecting the two Keck’s that allowed them to be used as an interferometer.
Back up the stairs and a few of our group had to stop to suck in air from the exertion of climbing the stairs, then into the vacuum chamber room where the Keck mirror segments have their aluminium coating chemically removed and are then sealed in the vacuum chamber for re-aluminizing. Last stop on our tour was a look at the spare mirror segments, each one worth a cool million dollars. The fact that the specialist working on these segments had an oxygen bottle on his belt with dosing tubes secured to his nose was a reminder that we were indeed still at 14,000 ft.
Bill was such a nice guy, extremely accommodating, wished us luck with our observing and let us out, although he did insist on a head count to make sure I never stowed away in the observatory. We had been in the observatory for about 3 hrs and the weather had changed considerably outside. Initially when we pulled up, the temperature was about 5 degrees C but now the wind had picked up to about 20 knots and the wind chill had lowered the temp considerably.
We were free to wander around at our leisure, to take more photos and just absorb the surroundings. I wasn’t feeling the cold I was just immersed in the whole physical and sensory experience of being in this very special place. Every fibre of my body, my very soul was affected by where I was and what lay before me
Eventually we loaded up, Duncan was losing the feeling in his fingers from the cold, what an experience this had been and there was still more to come with the next two nights observing with Keck II. We engaged low range and commenced our decent back down through the clouds, past the cinder cones and lava flows, back to the Onizuka visitors center at 9,000 ft. After a brief stop we continued on back to Waimea and the Jacaranda Inn.
Oct 28th. Hit the deck early and drove to Waipio Valley lookout, this is on the much wetter and greener windward side of the island, a breathtaking view over a valley about 2 km wide and about 1 km deep with a near vertical drop either side and waves rolling in from the Pacific breaking on the beach. Then on to Hilo at the other end of the island to visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawaii. Very unique building that seemed to incorporate various stainless steel cones into the structure. A very impressive setup for public education incorporating a planetarium and lecture halls.
Headed back to Waimea along the Saddle Road to meet up with Duncan at Keck HQ at 4 pm to witness the calibration of DEIMOS from the Keck II remote control room. It was here that we met the fourth member of our group, Mike McDowell who had just arrived from the USA. Duncan introduced us to the Keck HQ hierarchy, lovely and most obliging people. We followed Duncan to the Keck II remote control room and watched as Caroline along with our Keck support astronomer, Greg Wirth, calibrated DEIMOS, using the artificial lights inside the observatory. At this time it was totally clouded over and Jason, our operator at the summit, was even reporting flurries of snow.
Conditions were pretty crook and the satellite map of the region on one of our computers, that was updated every thirty minutes, showed no relief in sight. Errol, Mike and Marcus all headed off but I was determined to see it out, if the weather did clear then I intended to be there. Duncan gave me one of his papers on Globular clusters to read to fill in time. At 1:40 am Duncan took me over to another area of HQ and we had a game of Pool, then back to look at the satellite feed for the weather.
From this I have come up with a quantifiable test relating to the success with observing weather for research astronomers. The better they are at Pool the worst their record with the weather.
At the summit, Jason went outside every half hour to check on the cloud situation. The satellite map looked better at about 3 am but the conditions at the summit were still not good enough. Duncan made the call at about 4:15 am, even if it suddenly cleared and the dew point improved it would take about 40 minutes to open up, focus and start receiving data. This would be too close to astronomical twilight to do any meaningful work.
As I wondered out into the car park it was still quite dark and above Waimea it was clear as a bell. When I got back to Jacaranda Inn, about 3 km away, I grabbed a chair from the porch and climbed the hill behind my room and sat having my first ever view of the northern sky. I could see Polaris and for the first time Orion inverted relative to our normal view from Australia. I watched until the sky brightened too much then went to bed.
Oct 29th. Arose at 12 pm, the Sun was shining and off to Starbucks for coffee I went. The coffee did wonders for me so I drove back to Waipio Valley for some more photos then called in at Keck HQ to procure some Keck shirts and patches for my wife and son. When I explained to the woman that was organizing the shirts for me, my background and how I had come to be there she wrapped her arms around me and gave me a big hug, these really were very warm, genuine and caring people, then back to Jacaranda Inn to rest up for my next all nighter.
It looked really promising as I pulled into the car park of Keck HQ at about 8 pm, stars everywhere. Duncan let us in and obviously was not happy. At the summit it was clear as a bell with 0.6 of an arc second seeing but the mirrors were too close to dew point to open the dome. On the control panel we had three lights that reflected various temperatures within the observatory. If they were all green then we could observe, if they were all orange and stayed that way for at least half an hour we could observe, if any were red then the dome could not be opened. We had three red lights. This was very depressing as Caroline’s thesis depended on the data we were hoping to record during our two nights.
Duncan had developed a new technique for using DEIMOS that involved long slit scanning, Greg Wirth, our support astronomer organised the lights to be turned on in the Keck II dome to supply an artificial light source to test this new technique. This proved to be the only success for Duncan’s team with Greg commenting that this was a first for the Keck observatory.
The Keck I & Keck II remote control rooms are back to back and Duncan took us next door to meet Professor Chuck Steidel from Caltech and his two PHD students, Duncan told us that Chuck was a world leader in his field. This was the first of two nights for Chuck on Keck I. Chuck was very obliging and freely gave of his time to tell us about his research and answer our questions, he was more than happy to talk and explain things at our level.
Back with Duncan and his students it was obvious how disappointed they were and I really felt for Caroline as this was important for her thesis.
Duncan did his best to find positives but eventually, at around 4:30 am called Jason at the summit and gave up. This was the first, of Duncan’s many visits to the Keck’s that bad weather resulted in receiving no data at all. Duncan then offered me the task of shutting down DEIMOS, so I got to take over the controls and read off the shut down procedure from one screen while applying the commands to the DEIMOS control screen. Strewth, I just shut down a million dollar piece of equipment. It was raining in Waimea as I slowly made my way back to Jacaranda Inn.
Oct 30th. Arose at 12 pm and headed for Starbucks, I think the rest of our group were still in bed. Tonight was our last night in Hawaii; Duncan had booked a dinner for us at a luxury resort on the Kona Coast for a post-mortem on our trip. I was sitting in a corner of Starbucks sipping my cappuccino when who should walk in but Chuck Steidel, he got his coffee and came over. I thanked him for the time he gave us the night before and told him how honoured I felt, as an amateur to have spent that time with him. He commented that amateurs have much to offer and promptly invited me to observe with him on Keck I that night. How cool was this, another chance with a world leader in his field.
I shot back to the Jacaranda Inn where Mike, Marcus and Errol had surfaced, couldn’t keep the smile of my face and told them the good news, that we now had another observing night on Keck I. I packed my case so that I could leave for Kona airport, an hour’s drive away, straight from the Keck I control room the next morning.
We had a most enjoyable dinner at the most sumptuous resort I have ever seen, definitely would never be able to afford to stay there. Duncan had contacted Chuck to thank him for allowing us to observe with him. Professor Warrich Couch from Swinburne had arrived and was at our dinner with Sarah, they were to have Keck I the next night and was using the same instrument that Chuck would use tonight, so intended dropping in also. Watching the sun set over the Pacific, while enjoying a veritable feast, in such sumptuous surrounding was a fitting finale, but for Mike, Marcus, Errol and myself there was still more to come.
We arrived at Keck I remote control room at about 9 pm, the sky looked great. As we entered the control room it was obvious that they were on line and data was streaming in. We could see a screen that had the guide star in it that Keck I was tracking on. Chuck was imaging a Quasar that was at about 10 billion l/y, he was using the continuum generated by the light from it to detect Lyman alpha gas clouds in the foreground, in extragalactic space, in the voids between galaxy clusters. These were 30 minute integrations of the blue and red wavelengths. The Lyman alpha clouds show up as white dots along very fine spectral lines. It just kept getting better as Chuck also had some very short integrations to do for Mike Brown from Caltech of possible Kuiper Belt objects.
Mike Brown is famous for relegating Pluto by the discovery of Eris and other large Kuiper Belt objects. The instrument Chuck was using utilized a beam splitter so that it could either image objects or direct the light to the spectrograph. The work for Mike Brown involved only a few three minute integrations. At the time we were discussing the work of Clyde Tombaugh and the hours he spent blinking plates to eventually discover Pluto. As the Kuiper Belt images came in Chuck got one of his PHD students to load them alongside a comparison image, he then invited me to be Clyde Tombaugh.
How cool was this, blinking images just acquired by the largest telescope on Earth, sadly I found nothing new.
Later, as more of these images came in, Chucks student was blinking a new set and called me over, the format of these images was such that the two images side by side were about 12” x 12” and in this set, on the new image that Chuck had just acquired were not one but two objects that clearly moved relatively to the rest of the field. It just doesn’t get any better than this, to be at the Keck’s with 0.6 of an arc second seeing and actually finding stuff. Like, being one of the first people on the planet to see this image. Chuck commented that the best seeing he has ever experienced at Keck was 0.3 arc seconds.
Errol headed off for some sleep about midnight with Marcus not far behind and Mike went at 2 am but I was determined to make the most of this ounce in a lifetime opportunity. Our flight was to leave Kona for Honolulu at 7:03 am, it was at least an hour’s drive to Kona and I had to return my hire car. Only Errol and I were returning to Australia with Duncan, Max and Caroline, so it was decided that as Errol had the most sleep and I was coming off of my third straight all nighter, that I was to wake Errol up on my way past the Jacaranda Inn and I would follow him back to Kona airport. After an incredibly stimulating night with Chuck I bade farewell to him and his students at about 4:15 am and after picking up Errol at the Jacaranda Inn headed, very bleary eyed for Kona.
As luck would have it, just after I pulled in to the Car rental yard Duncan, Max & Caroline pulled in behind, they had stayed the night on the Kona side of the island so as not to have to leave so early to get to the airport. We were all knackered but just how satisfying was this trip, for me, these were memories I will treasure forever. By the time we boarded our Qantas flight in Honolulu for Sydney I had not slept for 24 hours, following two nights on Keck II with Duncan and one night on Keck I with Chuck, I was so very fortunate to be on this trip.
I will never be able to thank Duncan enough for giving me this opportunity, to accompany him and to be able to meet professionals that recognised the worth of amateurs and were willing to open their world, at least for a few days to ordinary people such as me was very special indeed.