Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Keck-Ass Birthday

Today I was on top of the world. A cadre of my CEO’s joined me atop the tallest mountain on Earth -- Mauna Kea -- with great views of both our planet and others. This summit is the site of about a dozen observatories operated by universities and agencies from Japan, Canada, France, and other nations whose astronomers seek a thin, and accessible atmosphere unpolluted by light (not to mention a nice island to visit).

A geodesic dome housing one of Caltech’s observatories.

The jewel of the summit is the Keck Observatory, a joint venture of UCLA and Caltech that operates the world's two largest telescopic lenses with diameters of 8 and 10 meters each. In fact the effective resolution is much greater because the two lenses can be individually adjusted by interferometers for atmospheric distortion (primarily from light-bending air turbulence) and then combined to present a highly precise parallax and panoply of data points. Researchers apply up to a year advance for the chance to use Keck’s equipment on just the right night, but only 20% of the many applications can be accommodated, and even the winners of the peer-reviewed selection process can be stymied by cloudy weather, only to get in line again. It was here at Keck that astronomers discovered most of the several hundred known exo-planets, as well as observable properties of the black hole anchoring our galaxy.

Now we had started the day 14,000 feet below the top of the world -- racing our stand-up paddleboards in the warm Pacific, and snorkeling the reef. Coming off Sunday’s storm, the waves were higher than any the locals had seen. We were a tad reckless, and sure enough it ended in injury as Mike Fitzsimmons kayak-surfed a wave right into shallow coral and a dozen sea urchins. (Ouch! Not my most value-added day as a VC.)

Debbie Goodwin at Keck drove us up the mountain grade as we passed through several micro-climates (the Big Island of Hawaii has 11 of the planet’s 13 climates). At 9,000 feet we stopped for lunch at base camp to acclimate ourselves to the thin air. At 12,000 feet we started seeing the snowboarders and skiers on the slopes around us, and a man filling his pickup truck with snow to bring back down the mountain for fun. As we finally reached the top, we all felt the effects of a 60% atmosphere – nausea, dizziness, forgetfulness, and freezing temperatures. It was great! (Though we did have to stop now and then to tap the oxygen tanks.) Unfortunately the effects of high altitude are more dangerous children, who are restricted from the summit until age 16.

To achieve such high resolution imaging, Keck pioneered a scalable design of segmented mirrors driven by actuators. The mirrors form a parabolic surface that directs all the waves to a secondary mirror opposite them, which bounces the waves back into the center of the parabola where a tertiary mirror bounces them into the interferometers along the side. The entire mechanism -- which we watched in awe as its 300 tons glided into proper viewing position for its next target -- floats on a ring of hydrostatic oil that enables a single person to move it!

With such a segmented design one can theoretically build a mirror of any size to catch photons and indeed there are even larger telescopes in the works. Keck is hoping to house a project planning a 30m lens, but the island's residents have interceded on behalf of Poli'Ahu the snow goddess, so the project may be headed for Chile. (Who has time for this?) Here’s one of the 2 spare glass segments, which rotate off the telescope periodically for maintenance. In this picture, the mirrored aluminum coating has been chemically removed, so you can see the sensors and actuators.

Here’s the second spare segment that has been re-coated with a layer of aluminum 1% as thick as a human hair.

In this photo below from the Keck web site you can see the laser beam they emit into the atmosphere to measure atmospheric disturbances to their observations.

At the end of the day our friends at Keck surprised me with a birthday cake and song. I got to discuss multiverses with the astronomers while downing layers of chocolate and coconut. Yeah!

When we were back at sea level we shed the layers to enjoy barbeque, spa, poker and pool. Among other lessons today, I learned how to shear off the top of a bottle Dom Perignon by swiping a butcher’s knife along the bottleneck, just as Napolean’s cavalary did with their sabres. (Don’t try this at home.)

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