The View Up Here

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Fun Stuff At Work

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/12/2011

I’ve written a lot about kites and photography, a fair bit about writing, and a little about the side jobs I wind up doing at work. But I’ve written very little about the job itself. Time to change that.

CFHT and the Mauna Kea Atmospheric Monitor

I work as an Instrumentation Specialist at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation. CFHT is one of several international astronomical observatories located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our headquarters are located in the town of Waimea at the north end of the island, but the telescope and observatory is located at the summit of Mauna Kea.

“Instrumentation Specialist” is a nice way of saying, “I do whatever is necessary for the observatory to be able to take science grade photons at night and convert them into viable data.” As I’m fond of putting it, some days this means I’m designing and building new instruments. Other days it means I’m sweeping and mopping the floors. This isn’t at all far from the truth.

I really do get to design and build new instruments, which can be a lot of fun. These are some renderings of a design I’m working on right now.

Cryogenic Detector Outside

Just so you know I don’t just draw the outsides of things, these are renderings of some of the internal bits:

Cryogenic Detector Internals

The detectors should be in final review in the next couple of weeks, and I should start cutting metal before the end of the year. These are the first detectors I’ve done the bulk of the mechanical design for, so I’m excited to see them completed, pumped, and cooled. There’s nothing really earth-shattering in the design, but we’ve made a lot of effort to reduce vibration, eliminate unnecessary o-rings, and improve pumping time and hold characteristics. (Notice I said “we’ve”… I’ve done the bulk of the mechanical design work on these, but I’m not the only developer. Teamwork!)

One of the larger jobs we do at work is to periodically re-coat our mirrors. Re-coating a mirror involves removing it from the telescope, transporting it to the coating facility (located in the basement of the summit facility), cleaning it, stripping off the old coating, and applying a new one using a vacuum deposition system. For the primary mirror, this involves a full shutdown of the telescope. For the secondary mirror (shown below in pre and post-coating condition) this only involves disassembling the secondary upper end.

Before and After - Telescope Mirror

We also provide the coating facility for the other 4m class telescopes on Mauna Kea. Our next scheduled coating is the primary mirror of another telescope. The next mirror we coat that’s ours is our f/8 secondary, shown here. The last coating was cosmetically poor, so we’re looking forward to putting a cleaner coat on the mirror.

Other work involves servicing our external sensors. We monitor air and surface temperature around several parts of the facility as well as wind speed and direction, which is monitored on our weather tower. Sometimes servicing only involves a quick jaunt outside the building. Other times it’s more involved.

Fall Protection

Photo courtesy of Grant Matsushige

Other times we really do sweep and mop the floors. When I’m using the machine shop, cleanup is a necessity. At least once per work day we knock all the chips off the machines and work surfaces, sweep the floors, and yeah, we mop. The CNC mill likes to throw splatterfests with its coolant, so daily mopping is required for safety’s sake. Besides, its’ gross. We try not to let things pile up in the other shops and labs, but invariably they do. Once a year we all stop what we’re doing and clean all the labs. You guessed it: more sweeping and mopping.

Something that may not be apparent from the pictures and stories: our summit facility is located around 14,000′ above sea level. At that altitude there’s about 60% of the air you’d get at the beach. Breathing only 60% of the air you’re used to has some very real consequences. Everything becomes harder: thinking, walking, talking, and certainly climbing. Safety becomes a real concern. In the previous photo I’m wearing a climbing harness with a lanyard attaching me to the ladder I’m climbing. What’s not visible is my climbing partner, the radios we’re wearing and using to check in with people inside the building, and the ground checks we made before climbing to make sure nothing we might drop would injure anyone below. This aspect of the job is taken very seriously. And as a result we all go home at the end of the day, safe and sound.

Sunset Across the Way

One of the truly wonderful aspects of living and working in Hawaii is that even though we sometimes work up in the ice and snow, somewhere below us is paradise. And at the end of the day when we hang up our gear, turn off our radios, and take our names off the safety board, it’s just a short drive away.

Evening Flight

And if we get done early enough, there’s even time enough to fly a kite every once and a while.

I love my job.

– Tom


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