The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Archive for August, 2012

A Day In The Life

Posted by Tom Benedict on 28/08/2012

People sometimes ask me, “What kind of work do you actually do at a telescope? Isn’t it just looking up at the stars?”

The answer is “Yes and no.” We do have people here who look at the stars. Or rather, we have observers who operate our facility to take data for astronomers around the world. But most of our staff is tasked with keeping the place running. That’s where my job fits in. When people ask what our job description is, I like to say that it reads: “To do anything and everything necessary to collect science-quality photons every single night of the year.” Mostly, that’s keeping things in good shape and making sure everything runs smoothly at night. But sometimes it means taking on project work.

So what’s a typical work day like? Well… There isn’t one. Every day is different. Some projects we get are big, and span several years. Others are small projects and may only span a few days or a few hours. Here’s a recent example of a small project that is only taking a couple of days of actual work:

Recently, the need came up to measure the width of the slit on our dome. The “slit” is the opening in the dome that the telescope looks out through.

CFHT and the Mauna Kea Atmospheric Monitor

This is a photograph of our facility showing the shutter in the closed position. (Unfortunately I still haven’t made any photos of our telescope with the slit open. Note to self…) The big white panels are the shutter, which covers the slit through which the telescope looks. At night the shutter rolls back like a giant garage door.

To measure the open part of the slit, we stuck two Leica Disto laser measuring units back-to-back and attached them to the shutter. As the shutter opened, we triggered the units to take measurements off to either side. Add the two measurements up, and voila! You have the width of the shutter at that point along the track.

Aaaah! But the shutter has a back side, too, that it slides down as the shutter opens:


Measuring this was a little trickier…

It started about a week ago. One of my co-workers and I climbed to the top of the building to test-fit the Leica Disto unit. Unfortuantely we couldn’t put it smack dab in the middle of the shutter the way we did on the lower edge. But we were able to position it off to one side.

Dual Disto Rail - Installed

Because each Disto will measure over a hundred feet with millimeter accuracy, this still works. We should still be able to add up the two numbers and get the width of the slit. Unfortunately the chunk of metal I mounted the Disto unit on wasn’t entirely flat. One laser beam intersects the arch girder on its thin edge. But the other laser beam was so skewed, it actually hit the enclosure on the far end. I needed to get several degrees of tilt to make everything line up correctly.

So that’s what I did today. I tore the thing down and muddled through a way to get more adjustments out of the mount. Here’s what I came up with:

Dual Disto Rail - Overview

This is an overview of the Disto rail mount. The two Leica Distos are mounted back-to-back on a rail. The rail keeps them pointing in opposite directions, and offers some protection from knocks, dings, and other things that go bump in the night. The rail is in turn mounted at 90 degrees to a second rail along which the first rail can slide. This offers some lateral adjustment in case the Distos need to be offset from the base. The second rail is then mounted in the roll/pitch/yaw platform.

Dual Disto Rail - Roll Pitch Yaw

(I dare you to find an uglier collection of nuts and bolts!) It’s a mish-mash of metric (M6 set screws) and SAE (#10-24, #12-32, and 1/4″-20 for the roll and yaw adjustments). This is one stark reality about working at a place like this: Unless you have time to plan a thing, it is, by default, a scrap box project. I started designing in SAE, intending to use 1/4″-20 for everything. Then I found out our 1/4″-20 screw selection had been ravaged. So I grabbed some #12-32 screws. Lo and behold, I couldn’t get both lengths I was after. Rather than chop screws, I grabbed the next size down and found some the right length. Then I found out we didn’t even have SAE set screws. So I had to use metric.


So it’s a frankenbeast. But it works! I adjusted the two M6 set screws to take out residual roll (I got it to better than 0.002″ across that whole bar!) Now the 1/4″-20 hex head bolt at the back lets you tip the laser beams by several degrees.

I’m slated to go up tomorrow to test-fit this thing again and see if I can bullseye the two laser spots on the edges of the arch girders. If I can, we’re in business for taking these measurements. And if not? I’ve got a machine shop and a scrap box waiting for me on ground floor.

– Tom

P.S. In case you’re wondering how the thing actually attaches to the shutter, that base is essentially a giant fridge magnet. On the bottom are three neodymium magnets I stripped out of some dead hard drives. See? Scrap box project!

P.P.S. So what’s the view like when you’re standing on top of a telescope dome? In a word: Outstanding.

A Day In The Life

Posted in Astronomy, Engineering, Machining | 4 Comments »

Scary, Smart, Loud ‘n Clear – My Weekend

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/08/2012

Sorry, no good machining stories or photography stories from the weekend. I did start drawing up the main halyard winch from our Pacific Catamaran in the hopes of building a new one, but it also looks like I can press the old one back into service with a little work. And I brought my KAP gear to the beach on Sunday, but didn’t put a camera up. Still, the weekend wasn’t without story material:


Saturday morning, we decided to pick up all the toys in the yard, clean up the porch, basically de-redneck. (No, my Jeep is not up on blocks yet, but that’s another story from the weekend.) My son grabbed all the slippers and crocs from the back porch and took them inside to clean. Why he brought them inside to clean in the bathtub instead of using the hose outside, I’ll never know. But he did. And somehow I wound up having to clean the tub, not him. (Go figure…)

About halfway through, the screaming started. Loud screaming. Screaming with purpose! That could mean only one of two things. I tore off running for the bathroom. “What happened?!” I yelled.

I saw a brown widow spider!” my son replied.

I took two things away from this: One, there was a brown widow in my bathroom – my son knows full well what they look like. Second, he saw it, but wasn’t bit by it. WHEW!

In case you’re not familiar with brown widows, they’re quite similar to black widows. Their bite packs only a slightly less mighty wallop than the bite of a black widow. For a kid his size, it would’ve meant an ER visit at the very least. And yeah, the place where we live is rife with them. Normally when we encounter a stray animal in the house, we stick it in a container and take it somewhere safe for the animal to be released. But I draw the line on centipedes and brown widows. My younger daughter teared up when I flushed it, but down it went. I breathed a sigh of relief. So did my son.


Some months back the left side mirror on my Jeep fell off. The pivot had rusted through, and it just flopped off on the ground one day. There was no way to put it back together, so I ordered a new pair of mirrors off an online Jeep parts retailer. The new mirrors came in a few days, and… there were no instructions. I looked through my repair manual. No help there, either.

From what I could see, they screwed in from the inside of the door. ??! The inside? How the heck was I supposed to do that? I looked at the door, but didn’t see any real way to get at the screws. So I tossed the mirrors in the back of my Jeep and learned to drive with two out of three mirrors. For the record, no, this isn’t safe. And no, it’s not smart. And actually, I’m pretty sure I could’ve been pulled over for it. But my options were starting to look like removing the door panels, taking out the windows, and then drilling through the inside of the door since there was no other way to get at the screw heads. I figured I could wait on it until my next safety inspection.

Which, of course, came due in August. Oh wait! It’s August! And just in time, my car blew a turn signal bulb, lost most of its brake fluid, and came due for an oil change. It really does hate me. I swear it does. But I love it anyway. So Rydra and I drove to NAPA and picked up stuff for an oil change, air filter change, a new set of bulbs, and brake fluid. When we got home she said, “You need to replace that mirror if you want to pass inspection.”

“Yeah, I have them right here.” I showed her where they’d been living in my car for the last few months.

“Why haven’t you put them on?” she asked.

I went into the whole song and dance about how I’d have to take my doors apart, maybe drill into them, etc. I sounded like a total whiner, I’m sure. She stared at me through all of this, then proceeded to show me how the covers snap on and off of the things so you can get at the screw heads really easily, because they’re on the outside of the door where a sensible person would put them. What I had been struggling with for months, she figured out in under ten seconds. >sigh<

(Now do you see why I get frustrated when we can’t find any women applying for our telescope engineer positions!)

She graciously helped me install my new mirrors, and stood by while I topped off the brake fluid. “Why was your fluid low?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

As she walked inside she said, “I’d look for a leak if I was you.”

I looked under the car. Brake fluid was oozing out of my left rear brake. >sigh< One more repair on the list: rebuilding the rear brakes.

Loud ‘n Clear

After the whole “let’s work on the Jeep!” fiasco, we headed down to the beach. I love going there. It helps that Hapuna Beach, one of the top ten rated beaches in the world, is less than fifteen minutes from our house. I also just never run out of stuff to do there. From swimming to boogie boarding to diving off the rocks, it’s a great place to go. Of course half the time I do none of those things because I’m doing something else. Reading a book, flying a kite, doing kite aerial photography, it’s all fair game.

Hapuna A650 July, 2011

This time I brought my KAP gear, but I brought something else as well: a shortwave radio. I’ve had one for ten years or so. But ever since getting my ham license, it’s been something of a tease. “Here! You can listen, but you can’t taaaaalk! Hahahaha!” Yeah, whatever. But until I have my General license and an HF rig to use, it’s as close to the longer bands as I’m going to get. Like the song goes, it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got. So rather than stress it, I’ve been having fun with it.

But a radio is nothing without an antenna. And often it’s the antenna that makes the real difference, not the radio. So some months back I started looking into what I could do to improve the reach of my shortwave. The idea is pretty simple: Run three wires in parallel, each of a different length, and connect them all at one end. Make the lengths right, and you have a multi-band antenna. I got the idea from this site. (Yes, yes, the site calls for four wires. I only had three-conductor wire on hand, so I lost one of the bands. It’s still pretty darned cool!) But rather than hang this from a tree or a post, as in the article, I suspended it from a kite line. A ground wire running down into the wet sand let me use the beach and ocean as my ground plane.

The antenna went together in an afternoon, and was easily rolled onto an old kite line spool I had lying around. And that’s where it sat for a long, long time. We had stopped going to the beach for a while, so I didn’t have reason to pull it out. This time, I was pulling it out!

The antenna weighed less than my DSLR KAP rig, so I knew the kite would lift it. Once it was airborne, I clipped the antenna on and let line out to hoist it up. Every ten feet or so I had another clip so the kite line would support the antenna for its full length. When the entire antenna was up, I tied off the kite line and set the ground spike in the sand. Then I plugged the antenna into my radio and turned it on.


I had no idea the radio waves were that jammed. I picked up China easily, then picked up several Australian stations. Next was a whole set from South America (though my Spanish is too poor to figure out which ones). Next was Japan. These were all incredibly clear. It didn’t even qualify as DX the signal strength was so high. I thought I heard one that was either German or Dutch, but I couldn’t be sure. Just to make sure the antenna was actually doing something, I unplugged it. (It’s a receiver, so no chance of a blown output amplifier stage.) Dead silence. I plugged it back in, and WHAM! Everything was back.

We had to leave well before I was done scanning all the bands my antenna gave me. I didn’t even take notes on which stations I’d picked up. There were just too many. I’ll be more systematic next time. I swear.

When I got home, I did some poking around just to see what it would take to do this with an HF transceiver. As it turns out, not much. Since this was a receive-only antenna, I got away with using very lightweight wire. But MFJ makes a multi-band center-fed dipole that looks like it would hang from a kite line, too. The antenna is rated for 1500W of transmitter power. I doubt I could find an HF rig that would fit in a backpack that could even come close to that. So the antenna problem is solved.

Just more incentive to hit the books and get my General license. Meanwhile, I’ve got something new to do at the beach on the weekends.

– Tom

Posted in Engineering, Hawaii, Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, Radio | 5 Comments »

We Need a Change

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/08/2012

About a year ago we went through a round of hiring at work. As I looked through the list of applicants, I was struck by something: Of the 100+ applicants, only four were women. That’s less than 4%.

This isn’t new. It was true of the previous round of hiring as well. And I’m sure it was true for the round before that. But I couldn’t help feeling sad when I saw that statistic. From my admittedly naive point of view, this is what it means: Fully half the population of the planet finds that what I do for a living is so boring, they wouldn’t consider it as a career.


It’s not just our organization. This is a pattern that’s repeated at many telescopes. When we go to the summit to work, we stop at base camp at 9000′ along with the crews of the other twelve telescopes to eat breakfast and acclimate to altitude. Around the time we get in, the night crews are finishing their “dinner” and are going to bed for the day. Night crews are a more even mix. Still nothing close to 50:50, but maybe 20:80 or 30:70. But as soon as the night crews are gone and it’s just daytime workers, the ratio drops. Most mornings there isn’t a single female there. Using the same naive logic I used before, that means that using a telescope is somewhat interesting. But keeping one running? No way.

Keeping a telescope running is typically labeled “engineering” though that’s a broad term. If you ask someone on the street what they think an engineer does, they’re as likely to say, “It’s someone who sits at a computer all day designing stuff,” as they are to say “It’s someone who wears a stripey hat and runs a steam train.” In the strictest sense, both are true. What we do is a mix of these, though most of the work leans toward the stripey hat and steam train end of the spectrum. We’re the ones who turn the wrenches, who troubleshoot the electronics, who fix the plumbing. We get to sit at a desk and do design work from time to time, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

When I was searching for reasons for the rarity of women in engineering, I actually ran across someone (a woman) who said that men are inherently better at these kinds of things than women. I almost choked! I couldn’t believe that idea was still rattling around out there. My sister-in-law is an electronic engineer. My boss’s daughter is studying engineering in college. My own daughter is planning to go into science or engineering. And one of the most capable systems engineers I’ve worked with was a woman whose office was right across the hall from mine. Inherently incapable? I don’t think so. Not even close.

Which leads me back to my earlier observation and to some questions:

Is the kind of engineering we do really that boring to most women? Or am I reading this wrong?

Is this ratio of women to men typical of any engineering field, or is it telescopes in particular?

If telescope engineering is not boring, what other factor is at work to create this kind of imbalance?

(And now for the real question) How do we change this?

Because this has got to change. Don’t get me wrong – I love my co-workers. But breakfast at 9000′ with a bunch of guys? There’s more to life than this.

– Tom

Posted in Engineering | 1 Comment »