Friday, June 23, 2017

Some Solstice News, 2017 Edition; Also Lava Tube Pictures

First of all, yes, I missed the solstice by two days (like I always do), but that was the original inspiration for this post. Then, having pointed out that, hey, it was the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere two days ago, I realize that there isn't much else to say to about it, so have a few pictures from my Kamehameha Day trip in addition.

I took a couple friends up to the Mauna Loa Observatory where I work on June 11, Kamehameha Day (a state holiday here in Hawaii) for a tour of the YTLA and some exploration of various lava tubes and geological features. For a state holiday, it was the busiest I've ever seen it up there, with both a tour group from South Korea on a tour and people around from both the eponymous atmospheric observatory and the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, which I'd never actually noticed being open before (though I discovered they were likely the car we'd meet driving up at 4:00 AM as we were driving down after a night of observing!).

The telescope at the MLSO, observing the sun.
The weather unfortunately didn't coöperate for us in our attempt at spelunking on the way down, being wet and misty below 10,000 feet or so. It wasn't too bad at the first lava tube we stopped at on the way down, just below the 9,000 foot mark, so we explored it for a bit.

My friend Mark provides scale for the opening to this particular tube.
This lava tube has its opening right beside the road…and I do mean right beside the road. There's maybe a foot (if that) between the edge of the tarmac and the lip of the skylight into this tube. I have to admire the sheer indifference of the original road builders to stick to their plans and ignore this gaping hole right beside their work.

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were several large skylights at irregular intervals for some way, lighting it up to the point where a flashlight was hardly necessary at all.

A little hard to make out, but this is looking down the tube.
In a pattern that really shouldn't surprise me at this point, this lava tube was both similar and yet quite different from the others I've been in. This one is tall, often rising 20 feet or more to the roof, even with the copious collapse covering the floor. And yet, it wasn't difficult to navigate, having little slope and being wide open with plenty of room to maneuver; Kaumana Caves is much harder in many places due to its low ceilings. All the lava tubes I've been in have had white material (which I believe is crystallized gypsum) on their walls, but this tube was positively overflowing with the stuff.

Gypsum-coated walls reflect enough light that this picture actually worked.
In this picture, you can see Graham taking a picture of the incredibly white walls. Normally lava tube wall are pretty dark—sure, there's some reds and other colors, but a lot of the walls are plain black. Taking a picture with my phone's flash alone wouldn't have worked in most of the other tubes I've been in, but this one just has so much white gypsum reflecting light that it actually kinda works. (The light from a skylight just ahead, seen just in front of Graham in the middle, probably helped too.) I don't know why this particular tube should have so much more than others I've seen; I guess maybe the flow that made it was just especially gypsum-rich?

A skylight with a natural bridge crossing the tube.
This last picture is neat, though I don't know how easy it is to make out. At the top you have light from a skylight falling in, while in the middle is a sort of 'bridge' in the lava tube, a short arch in the middle of the tube that suggests this lava tube had a very interesting history, perhaps with multiple levels at some point. Even the bottom of that arch would be well above my head (6” 1’, 1.85 m), to give you an idea of the scale here

Despite what these pictures might make you think, we actually didn't get to fully explore the tube to my satisfaction; after a while the skylights stopped while the tube continued on, but as it was still crummy weather and starting to get a bit late we didn't continue on (I've heard the cave continues on a bit further before ending). I definitely plan to return, however! It's a really cool cave, and I plan to go back with my camera and a proper flashlight to plumb it to its end (we originally just planned to pop in and take a quick look due to the weather, which turned out to be closer to half an hour). A hui hou!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A June Jolt

Today started off with a jolt. Quite literally, as I was jolted awake at 7:01 AM by a single sharp shock rocking the house perpendicular to my bed followed by a gradually decreasing shaking over the next fifteen seconds or so. Having awakened from a mere five hours of sleep after a night of observing, I calmly resigned myself to the house collapsing if it decided to do so as I was far too groggy to do anything useful like “getting out of bed and taking cover.” Thankfully the quake wasn't quite as powerful as my sleep-muddled imagination made it out to be, and the shaking subsided over what felt like an interminably long time but was probably only about ten to fifteen seconds.

I looked it up later and it turned out to be a magnitude-5.09 shaker with its epicenter almost due south, just south-east of Kīlauea. Not exactly my preferred alarm clock (though certainly effective!), but as I like to say life's never boring when you live on a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! A hui hou!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Opening the Shelter for the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array, a Belated Birthday Video!

So it turns out my birthday came and went on the 17th this year without me ever mentioning it here. Turns out, like several years ago with the JCMT, I was observing at a telescope! The YTLA this time, though. Altitude often makes me forgetful however, and I completely forgot to mention it at the time.

However, the day after my birthday a co-worker of mine by the name of Johnson Han who was out from ASIAA in Taiwan working in Hilo for a few weeks brought his high-end 4K-video-camera-equipped drone up to the site hoping to get some aerial footage of the telescope enclosure being opened, as we were planning to do some daytime observing in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and misty until well after sunset, and we weren't able to even open the shelter until almost 9 o’ clock. This didn't deter him, however and he got some great shots of the Mauna Loa Observatory area during the day and then some footage of the telescope opening at night.

I was enthusing over the video he got and mentioned I was into video editing, and Johnson graciously offered to send me the footage to play with. After several days  two weeks working to edit it down to a comfortable length without having to cut too much, I've got a neat video of the area where I work and some of the things I do which you can see below (in a whopping 4K [2160p] resolution if you have a screen big enough, which I don't)!


As mentioned in the video, Johnson exhausted his last back-up battery getting that footage so he wasn't able to capture the telescope rearing to its full height and moving around while observing, so I still have a goal to shoot for myself. In the meantime, enjoy this belated birthday video, and if you have any questions feel free to ask down in the comments!

Johnson also has his own YouTube channel where he's been slowly uploading his own movies of various parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, like flying his drone out to where the lava was entering the sea, or up the Wailuku river, or even getting some nice aerial shots of ʻImiloa and the various astronomical buildings in Hilo, and I'd encourage you to check them out. Also a big 'thanks' is in order to him for letting me use his amazing footage in the first place. A hui hou!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

U.S. Passports, and a Hawaiian Hero

I've been slowly working through the application process to the University of Swinburne, which necessitated renewing my passport as my old one expired two years ago. My new one came a two weeks ago, and the design has changed quite a bit; it now incorporates quotes from people or events in American history both famous (George Washington, the Declaration of Independence) and not-so-famous (“Except from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version”). I was somewhat surprised to find a quote by Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka among them:
Every generation has the obligation to free men's minds for a look at new worlds…to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.    —Ellison S. Onizuka
For those who don't know, Ellison Onizuka was an Hawaii-born astronaut who was on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986 that exploded 73 seconds after launch on his second spaceflight. He was born in Kealakekua over on the Kona side, and was the first Asian American and first person of Japanese descent to reach space, logging a total of 74 hours of spaceflight on his first mission.

There are a number of places named in his memory here in Hawaii (and apparently elsewhere in the U.S., according to the article about him; perhaps he's more famous than I thought). The cluster of buildings mid-way up Mauna Kea known colloquially as Hale Pōhaku is officially the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, and the visitor center where I worked in 2012 is officially the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Information Station. There's a metal plaque of his face by the entrance to the latter, though I don't appear to have a picture of it.

I don't really have anything more to say about it, other than that I thought it's cool he's being remembered in the current U.S. passport design.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

More Pictures from the Mountain

It's not a particularly creative post title, but at least it's accurate. Have some more pictures from Mauna Loa!


After several tries, I've come to the regretful conclusion that it's simply impossible to replicate the colors seen in the sunsets up here in a photo. They're just so incredibly breathtaking in the range of hues.

That being said, this picture comes pretty decently close. (This is the view from just outside our break room.)


May 1st we had a snowfall on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This is pretty late in the season for snow, though it's possible to get snow any time of the year here; I still remember the time it snowed all the way down to the Visitor Center while I was working there—in June! (This snow doesn't extend that far down.) At a little over 11,000 feet (~3,350 meters) our site was too low to get any snow, though.

I like how the snow here is mostly only in one sector, not equally spread around the summit.


A few days later, on May 5th, the snow had all melted, but the focus is this old eruptive vent near the road—we stopped on the way down after some daytime observations. This is maybe fifty feet from the road, and perhaps twenty feet deep. I couldn't get a good picture of the inside because it's so large, perhaps thirty feet across.

I don't know how old it is—based on the weathering I'd guess somewhere within the past few hundred years—but it's incredible to imagine when this fissure was belching molten rock and gasses from the interior of the earth.


There are also several lava tubes visible beside the road up to the site. This is the largest and most visible, though it doesn't go anywhere on either side beyond where it collapsed here. You can see where the road goes maybe twenty feet beyond the far end. This is not the gaping hole closest to the road—just above the 9,000 foot marker is the opening to a small lava tube literally within two feet of the side of the road, though I forgot to take a picture of it. I'm hoping to take a weekend soon to explore some of these lava tubes, so hopefully I'll have more pictures soon. A hui hou!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Underwater Yellowstone

Just a short post today, as I have been incredibly busy for the past two weeks—it seems like everything hits all at once and it all needs to be done yesterday, but the good news is that I've submitted my official application for the Ph.D. program at the University of Swinburne, sent off for a passport renewal (as mine expired two years ago, how time flies!) and taken care of a few more things so that things should be settling down for me soon (for a bit, anyway!).

I wanted to make this post to show off a quick video from something I helped kickstart last year, a group making an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to collect video and samples in Yellowstone Lake. They've released a teaser video showing some of the footage they were able to get, and while it's short it certainly looks pretty interesting!


Just need to wait for more of the results to be released, now.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Working on Mauna Loa

It has been a while since I last posted, hasn't it? I think this break of nearly a month is my longest interval yet between posts. Suffice it to say that I've been really busy with work, and too busy recuperating in between to find time to post. I say this not to complain, but merely to point out that being awake long nights at high altitude is really quite physically exhausting, especially since my schedule is still very much in flux and I can't really settle into a routine yet.

At least I get to work in some of the most gorgeous surroundings on earth, assuming you find bare lava rock beautiful! Mauna Kea in the late afternoon can be particularly striking with the low angle of illumination:


Or in the evening (different day):


Of course, the mountains aren't the only interesting things around! I took a panorama of the array of dishes while up on the telescope platform. You can see the cherry picker we're learning to drive in the background.

The panorama distorts it, but these are arranged in a hexagon around the center one.

Also, we finally opened the enclosure structure before dark, allowing me to pose in front of the telescope! This is the parked position; for actual operation those legs stretch up to at least twice as tall. I have a burning desire to get a video/timelapse of the process of opening the structure and engaging the telescope sometime, as it looks incredibly cool.


Finally, one thing I noticed in the Mauna Loa Observatories building the other day is this neat card autographed by quite a few of the original astronauts who came to train in 1965 (several of whom later went on to walk on the moon). It's quite cool to be walking in the footsteps of these historic figures!


Well, hopefully I'll be faster at getting another post out in the future, but seeing how it took a long Easter weekend for me to feel rested enough to write this, we'll see! Hopefully I'm starting to get acclimated to the altitude and long nights and will be better able to function like a normal person when I'm awake during the day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A New Job at the YTLA!

So, it's been a little while since I posted last, and that's partly due to the fact that I accepted the job offer with the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array (formerly known as the Array for MIcrowave Background Anisotropy, or AMiBA), started work last Thursday, and have already been up Mauna Loa twice this week and will be going up again tomorrow. I love the view up there, but I can't deny it's pretty exhausting!

Mauna Kea with scattered clouds about its head, seen at quitting time yesterday. Pau hana!
So yes, I'm once again working full-time, and I'd forgotten how tired that tends to leave one at the end of the day. My job title is YTLA Telescope Test/Operator, and there's a chance I might start doing night-time operations on Mauna Loa as early as next week (though for the moment my work hours consist of a mixture of helping out up on Mauna Loa during the day and being in the office down in Hilo).

A panorama showing Mauna Kea with the YTLA on the right; the telescope is inside the tan fabric shelter while the white shipping containers are the control room and the operator quarters.
There's lots more I could say about my new work, but it's getting late and I need to be up early again to prepare for going up tomorrow, so I'll keep this post short. Though I just realized I can now truthfully tell people that I work on an active volcano. Awesome. A hui hou!

(You know you work at an amazing place when you can seriously ask your supervisor, “So if the volcano suddenly starts erupting, is the preferred course of action to get in the car and gun it down the mountain, or stay put and wait for the emergency evac helicopter?”)

Edit 3/23/17: Just a few more pictures I took today. It was cloudy and foggy today for the first time, and I got a nice picture of Mauna Kea brooding beneath the clouds:

Mauna Kea seen on a more cloudy day.
I also had the bright idea to take a panorama inside the YTLA enclosing structure, allowing me to better capture it in its entirety:

The outer structure looks weird because the panorama distorts it, but you can see its exterior two photos up.
I also learned today that there's a large empty cavity beneath the telescope, inside the white cone structure beneath the platform in the picture above. It has a hatch to enter that looks a lot like an early space flight capsule door:

The telescope is not actually secretly a spaceship, sadly.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Vectorizing Kalundwe's Flag

Today flag vectorizing target is Kalundwe, a small nation in the heart of Africa so obscure it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page in English. It's part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo nowadays, though it was free for a few hundred years between approximately 1350 to 1600, according to what I could find. I realized I edited together the video and even uploaded it to YouTube but hadn't put it in a blog post yet, so here you go!

Kalundwe's starting location in Europa Universalis IV in 1444, nestled between the nations of Kuba and Luba.
Kalundwe was eventually conquered by the neighboring nation of Luba, and became associated with it. The design on their flag in Europa Universalis IV looks like it may have been inspired by Luba-Kalundwe royal cups such as the one seen in this blog post.


Not much else to say about this one, it was a fairly straight-forward tracing process. A hui hou!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tour of the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array on Mauna Loa, and a Job Offer

Two weeks ago, as part of the job interview process for the operator job I applied for, I got to go on a tour of the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array facilities on Mauna Loa. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, so I took my camera along and got some pictures.

Mauna Kea from the road up to the Mauna Loa Observatories. This is facing basically due north.
The drive up from Saddle Road to Mauna Loa never fails to give me a sense of (wonder at) the size of Hawaiʻi island. From the turn-off point at Saddle Road, it's a mere 10–15 minutes' drive to get to Hale Pōhaku at ~9,200 feet. From the turn-off (only a few hundred feet down the road) to go to Mauna Loa it takes a solid 40–50 minutes to get to the Mauna Loa Observatories at ~11,200 feet.

(Part of this has to do with how the Mauna Kea access road is much steeper and more direct, while the Mauna Loa road winds, twists, and takes a much less steep path. Now that it's paved the entire way, I'd say it's actually an easier road overall due to never really getting as steep as the Mauna Kea road.)

Mauna Kea from inside the gated Mauna Loa Observatories area.
Have I mentioned the weather was amazing? Barely a cloud in the sky other than some off the west coast of the island (and some annoying vog in Hilo). You can see the peak of Kohala (the northern-most volcano of the five that make up Hawaiʻi) to the left of Mauna Kea in the picture above. Once we got past the gate blocking off access to the Mauna Loa Observatories (where I'd never been before), we got a tour of some of the various buildings at the site.

Some of the buildings at the Mauna Loa Observatories site. Check out Maui in the background there! That's Haleakalā.
Something I wasn't really aware of is just how many small observatories of all stripes there are on Mauna Loa. There's a weather station, a small solar telescope, several other domes (I have no idea what the three in this picture are, for instance), and some various other monitoring equipment and buildings scattered around. (I presume some of the are geophysical monitoring stations keeping tabs on Mauna Loa itself.)

The Yuan-Tseh Lee Array, or YTLA for short, was formerly known as AMiBA, or the Array for MIcrowave Background Anisotropy (astronomers will do anything for a tortured acronym!)

The original sign, still up.
The new name.
The YTLA hangs out under a strange, shell-like dome of PVC fabric, as seen in the image below:

That pill-bug-like shell is the housing for the YTLA.
For observing the covering curls over and folds up, allowing the telescope to see the sky. (The process is entirely manual, and operator-controlled.) We got to go in and see the telescope itself, on its central pedestal.

Apparently when it was first built, it was discovered that the telescope was about four feet too tall to fit in the enclosure. The solution? Lift the enclosure up by four feet! The original design also called for zippered holes in the fabric to enter and exit by, but that didn't work out so great so the entrance now is by bending over and clambering through a four-foot hole left from lifting up the enclosure. It's definitely one of the zanier telescopes I've had the pleasure of touring!

The YTLA, seen from the back. The various receiver elements are mounted on the top of that hexagonal platform.
After seeing the control room for the YTLA (a Matson shipping container) and the rooms for the operators (a Matson container split down the middle), we had an hour free to wander around while our guides did some work on the telescope.

Unlike the area around Hale Pōhaku, which is lightly wooded and has plenty of vegetation, the 11,000-foot mark on Mauna Loa might as well be the surface of the moon when it comes to flora (in fact, astronauts came here to prepare for the moon landings, as it's considered one of the best moon-analogs on earth). There are some very pretty pieces of lava lying around, however!

I love the brilliant green-blue-yellow iridescence of this tiny chunk of basalt.
Finally, as I often do when confronted with a vista and a camera in my hand, I ended up taking some pictures to put together as panoramas. I'm not entirely happy with either of these; they both have their flaws, but I've put them together as best I can, so here they are:



The second one comes from a bit higher up the mountain; the building visible on the far left in the first one (the YTLA breakroom) is just behind the right-most dome near the center of the second one. You can see the peaks of Mauna Kea, Kohala, Haleakalā, and Hualālai (from right to left) in both pictures.

All in all it was a great tour, and, between the genesis and the completion of this post, just this afternoon, I got a call to let me know that they were offering me the job, so it looks like I'll be becoming a lot more familiar with the area in the near future! A hui hou!