The Universe Tonight

Jun 6, 2009 6:00pm
Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, Brian Force

Behind the Scenes on Mauna Kea

By Brian Force,   Caltech Submillimeter Observatory


Have you ever wondered what goes on up on Mauna Kea other than the fantastic discoveries, beautiful pictures of what's out there and science? In addition to the constant flow of observers who live for a brief time at Hale Pohaku (HP) there are highly dedicated and talented people who travel up and down to the summit every day. Some of these people have been doing this for over 20 years. These are the people who make the science possible. They are the technicians, telescope operators and a few engineers who don't have to go up as often. Every day they get up early at perhaps 5 o'clock, go to their base facility and drive up to HP as a crew. Some eat breakfast at HP, prepared by others who live up there for many days at a time, while they acclimatize. After the short stay at HP they make the trip up the bumpy road to where they work all day. If there is snow they then have to shovel snow before they can start their normal work. Shoveling snow at over 13,000 feet is tiring. At some facilities they have to shovel off their roofs too which can be a little scary. 

Then the day begins. What do they do all day? They fix things, build things, clean places, load and unload big heavy Dewars, which contain the liquid nitrogen and liquid helium used to cool down the instruments which are used to sense the photons that the scientists are so interested in. The instruments used on Mauna Kea are some of the most complex and sophisticated technological creations that exist. The work day on Mauna Kea is very busy with little time for a break in order to get it all done by the designated time when the telescope traverses from maintenance mode to observation mode. At the end of the day there are anxious observers who want their working telescope. They may only have 3 nights of observing that they have been waiting months to get, after being approved by a time allocation committee of peers, with much of their research and publication for a whole year depending upon data they get during those 3 nights. So if (the day crew) doesn't get something fixed or the engineer breaks something during the day there is a lot riding on it.

Just what is the object of all this science that requires so much hidden effort, difficulties and challenges? There are many reasons for this part of science. One reason is data gathering. The various fields of physics are incongruous at the transition of scale where the physics models meet, which means that the overall model is not really good enough. In order to acquire the data needed for the theorists to model physical processes we either have to smash particles together at high energies or else observe tracers in the high energy regions of the universe. 

At our Observatory, the Caltech Sub-millimeter observatory, a great deal of interesting science has been accomplished since it detected its first spectra. In addition we have been a pioneer in this difficult frequency band which is useful for studies of stellar formation and molecular clouds to name a few. We can see into places no other type of telescope can see and determine velocities, turbulences and shock fronts by studying the spectral signatures of spinning molecules which give insight into areas of intense scientific interest. In 1994 we and our sister telescope, the JCMT (where I also have designed) teamed up to do the very first sub-millimeter interferometry, or 'aperture synthesis'. Now we both team up with the Smithsonian Sub-millimeter array to create a synthetic aperture of up to 700 meters. This large aperture helps to resolve features into more detail. Our telescope has more instruments now than ever before, since I arrived in 1989. There is a steady flow of people coming to the telescope who have their own instruments that we put on the telescope. This has increased the breadth of the science that is being accomplished and we are busy behind the scenes making sure that those P.I.'s get their support. Many of the novel instruments that are commissioned and debugged at our telescope are going to be used on larger apertures and/or at higher altitudes, notably SOFIA (Boeing 747) and CCAT in Chile. We will talk more about this at the upcoming program at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center. 

Speaker Biography 

I am an RF & Microwave engineer who works for the CalTech Sub-millimeter Observatory. I also have worked for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. I design the microwave systems that process the signals coming from the sub-millimeter band receivers. I also design the local oscillator systems for the receivers. My background is in design and R&D of integrated microwave circuitry used in electronic warfare, the only other field which deals with entire frequency bands other than astrophysics, which is why I am here. 

I have been working in this field since I was 19 and I am now 61. Though I work for the California Institute of Technology I have no formal education. I was fortunate to be in work situations which allowed me to progress as long as my R&D projects were successful. I had access to the M.I.T. library when I was at Raytheon and Sanders Associates which is how I read my way into my field. 

I have lived in Hilo since 1989 except for a few years when I worked on some other projects on Oahu and on Long Island as a consultant. I raised my family here and I still like to look out of the right window at Mauna Kea, and feel lucky to live here, when I return after working on projects on the mainland.

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