Friday, May 28, 2010

A tour of Subaru.

Tuesday, nine of us from the University Astrophysics Club got to go on a special tour of the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, which at 8.2 meters in diameter is among the largest telescopes in the world (the fact that it's a single piece of glass makes it even more amazing) . I was particularly excited because the trip gave me a chance to try out my new tripod. I'll just show you the panorama I took with it now, so I can focus on the telescope for the rest of this post:

You really need to click on this one to see it. Mauna Kea is in the middle, Mauna Loa on the sides.
My apologies for the horrible changes in exposure across the picture, I didn't realize I'd forgotten to take the pictures on manual till after I'd taken it. If you followed my advice and clicked on the picture, be aware that what you're seeing is 25% of the original -- a picture size and memory amount that would have frozen my old computer faster than making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Anyway, on to the telescope...

We all headed up to Mauna Kea in the morning, spent a half-hour at the Vis acclimating to the elevation, and reached the top of the mountain a bit before noon. We were then taken in to the telescope control building, and thence to the telescope enclosure itself (I can't call it a dome, because it's a cylinder; there's a picture of it later).

None of my pictures can adequately convey the feeling I got being in the room with the telescope. The thing is monstrously huge. Strangely, it seems even larger than Keck to me, though that's probably because I've never stood directly beneath Keck (I'm sure it would seem plenty big then).
Here's a picture of Subaru after they graciously rotated it so that we could see the mirror (well, actually we can see the mirror cover in this shot, they had it covered for protection, but it still gives you an idea of its massiveness).

Can you find me in this picture? Hint: near the bottom.
Perhaps this will help:

Look ma! One hand!
If you're wondering why the telescope is blue, it's because the Pleiades are faintly blue colored, and 'Subaru' is the Japanese word used to refer to the Pleiades.

As you can see, it was pretty cold in there. It was 50 degrees F at the Vis when we got there, quite a bit colder than that at the summit, and even colder in the telescope enclosure (most of the major telescopes are kept at or below freezing during the day to reduce thermal expansion stresses and minimize the time to thermal equilibrium in the evenings).

This being more than a mere tourists' tour, we got to go into the workshop where they periodically re-aluminize the mirror:


The tracks you see run all the way around the room, which is circular and directly below the telescope. In the background you can see some of the equipment they have for handling the 22.8 metric ton mirror when they bring it down. I asked how much aluminum is needed to aluminize the entire 8.2 meter mirror (~53 square meters), and was told "a few grams -- the amount in one aluminum soda can" -- they just spread it really, really, thin (and smooth). I also learned that aluminum reacts with concentrated hydrochloric acid, which surprised me because I was under the impression that it didn't (that's how they strip the old coating off the mirror to re-coat it).
Finally, the obligatory group photo afterwards with Subaru in the background:

See what I mean by cylindrical dome?

The fact that the tour was of Subaru didn't stop me from getting some great pictures of some of the other observatories up there. Here's a rather pretty shot of the Sub-Millimeter Array:


I also couldn't resist taking this fortuitous shot of Keck II with its door open (I have no idea why they were, but it allowed this excellent shot):


Inside you can see the 10-meter mirror.

So... as you can see I'm managing to keep busy. I'm still happily working with Dr. Takamiya, and I finally realized what it is I like so much about my job vocation. It's the creative aspect, where each project is a challenge to be met and overcome with creativity and ingenuity. I'm happy when I have a design objective firmly in mind and the inkling of an idea about how to achieve it (though I'm even happier when I've hammered it out and it works like it's supposed to!). Right now, for instance, I'm in the process of writing a script that will iterate through our special 'cube' data files and extract all 225 individual spectra in each one, then search them all and categorize which spectral lines that interest us are present. I'm at the point where I need to come up with a way to catalog the output about each spectrum, and I have an inkling about how to write a webpage using HTML and JavaScript that would allow the Python I'm using for the script to interact with it and automatically fill out a table with the desired values. Will it work? I don't know yet, but I'm going to find out soon! And with that said, I'll close off here and get to work on it.

Ah, the joy of creating...

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