Archive for the 'Work' Category

Traveling to the North Pole, Part 2: Arriving at Alert

May 06th, 2012 | Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

After our short stay in the bustling metropolis of Kangerlussuaq it was time to take off again.

We tumbled back into the Herc and flew up  the rugged coast of Greenland on our way to Thule Air Force Base (about 3 hours), where we refueled and took off again in short order.  Couldn’t take any pictures on the base, but here are some of the surrounding area.

This mesa (below) stands in the bay right off the Thule runway.  Someone told me it has a golf course on it.  That figures; in my experience, the USAF is golf course-centric.

Next stop, Canadian Forces Station Alert (3.5 hours frm Thule)!  In every direction, as far as the eye can see – and much farther than that – ice and snow cover the mountainous and unforgiving terrain.  There are no trees and no other human structures; we are 450 nautical miles from the geographic north pole.  The ocean is completely covered with multi-year ice, filled with broken, jumbled chunks of ice (the foreground in the next picture).  Where soil is exposed, it is black, rocky,  and inhospitable.

Below: Alert seen from the air.

Here I am in front of the famous Alert sign, with names of visitor’s cities and the distances.

The Herc offloads extra fuel into the base’s tanks, turns around, rumbles up the ice runway and is soon gone in a cloud of disturbed snow and noise.

The base itself is a complex of interconnected modules, each standing off of the ground to isolate them thermally as much as possible; if they were on the ground, they’d melt the icy soil and sink into it.  The doors to these buildings are like industrial refrigerator doors, with heavy latches to withstand the arctic winter’s fierce winds. 

The air is cold, but mild for this place – about 5F.  However, when the wind blows, it is truly frigid, becoming intolerable for bare skin that is exposed for more than a moment. I’ve only been here a week, and in that time, it’s been mostly sunny and beautiful, except for one day, when a 30-knot wind howled out of the south, transforming what had been simply very cold air into something completely different and a little scary.  Get caught in the wrong place, and that weather will kill you. 

At this season, the sun never sets, but simply orbits around at the same altitude.  The only difference is the direction of its light; at 2AM you need sunglasses. 

The wind sculpts the snow into amazing shapes:

Alert sits on a bay, so the ocean is right there.  Below: a charming quonset hut with an ocean view!

Here’s the beach.  On this shore, there is no surf, no seagulls, and no sound of any sort.  The ocean is completely silent, which is part and parcel of the barren, treeless land, the unbelievable cold, and a sense of utter desolation.  At this place, I feel that I am truly at the end of the earth – and in a sense this is true, because north of this, right at my feet, starts the Lincoln sea of the Arctic ocean, which stretches all the way to the pole, where there is no land – only ice. 


Looking to the south, over the windswept snow, there are mountains.  Imagine what it would be like to walk to the horizon; what would it take to survive?  In bad weather, the conditions are hard to believe.  In 1991, a Hercules aircraft just like the one I flew in on crashed only 10 miles away from Alert;  It took 3 days for rescuers to reach the survivors.

As lifeless as all of this looks, it is deceiving.  There is, in fact, lots of life here.  Under the snow, there are mosses and lichens that grew in the brief summer when the snow melts at lower altitudes.  These are eaten by Lemmings and hares, which are eaten by foxes, which are eaten by wolves.  Under the sea ice, there is a layer of algae that grows at the interface between ice and liquid sea water; fish eat the algae, seals eat the fish; polar bears, of course, eat the seals.  I have not yet seen any animals, but they are here, as their tracks show:

Polar bears are sighted here every so often.  Right now there are old polar bear tracks near the end of the runway.  Speaking of tracks, it is not always possible to get around on wheeled vehicles.  The base has plenty of snowmobiles, and also tracked vehicles like these:

I am extremely busy and the internet connection is very slow, but I will get more posts out when I can.



Traveling to the North Pole, Part 1: the Herc to Greenland

April 30th, 2012 | Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

I’m working as part of a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab/Columbia University LDEO collaboration on the Switchyard project, which among other things, collects data about the origin of water in the arctic region, and is also collecting depth soundings for the sea floor under the arctic ice in the area known as the Lincoln sea.  I’m the team member from JHU that wrote the firmware for the device and is taking it into the Arctic to use it for the first time.

See here for a map of my trip up to the polar region.  I’m not literally staying at the geographic north pole, but at a military/research base that is the northern most inhabited place on the planet – CFS (Canadian Forces Station) Alert Bay.  Alert bay is about 450 miles from the pole; we’ll be flying twin otter ski planes daily from Alert towards the Pole, landing at various spots and drilling holes through the ice so that we can sample the ocean water beneath and insert sensors under the ice.

The Air National Guard is responsible for ferrying people and supplies northward,under the management of the national science foundation.  The departure point is Stratton Air force base in Schenectady, NY, which is the home of the 109th Air lift wing of the NY air national guard, which performs the flights. So they picked us up from our hotel at 5AM, and we were briefed and awaited boarding permission.  The plane had already been stuffed with our gear.


It took about 6.5 hours, but eventually, the Dramatic coast of Greenland came into view.

Greenland is a majestically barren and quiet place.  We landed at Kangerlussuaq, which is a base dedicated to supporting various arctic missions.  Kangerlussuaq sits just inside the arctic circle.  The Kangerlussuaq International Science Support organization (KISS) provides housing, food and other logistics to people like me – scientists and engineers going to the polar regions.

Since it doesn’t get dark until midnight, I was able to borrow a bike from KISS and take a pretty difficult ride up to Black ridge, which overlooks the town.  Along the way I saw some of the unique Greenland Dogs.

Musk oxen are hunted and are a common source of food.  I was fed Musk Ox stew for dinner.

This is what it looks like at 10 PM here.  The effect will be even more pronounced close to the pole.

Note the street names.

Check out the sign…

There are no roads here; every board and sack of cement has come here on an aircraft.  It’s not beautiful, but it is very welcoming.

Tomorrow we will get up at 5AM, which is better than the 4AM wakeup today!  Then, we will fly to Alert, with a stop for refueling in Thule.


Coconino Forest Flowers Near The DCT

July 09th, 2010 | Category: Arizona,Lowell

Arizona’s forests are so pretty during flower season! Every other half-acre is a charmed meadow sprinkled with flowers of all hues.  Nobody plants them; they grow wild everywhere.  It’s been like this for about 3 weeks now.  During the “golden hour” it will take your breath away as the angled light transfixes the blossoms and spatters the forest floor with long beams of our star’s light.  All of these images were taken within a mile of the Discovery Channel Telescope.













Bob’s Telescope Tour

February 28th, 2010 | Category: Arizona,Lowell

My Father-in-law Bob visited and I gave him the grand tour of Lowell’s Telescopes. Here are a few shots of the two of us and some of Lowell Observatory’s telescopes.


The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) perching on its ridge in Happy Jack, Arizona. This is “my” telescope.


Bob standing in front of the DCT.


Bob standing inside of the DCT dome.  The black machine next to him is a man-lift that will be used for maintenance when the telescope is in operation.  The telescope is not here yet, but the building and the dome are completed. The dome weighs 330,000 pounds; the telescope will weigh a little more.


The electronics that spin the dome. Among other things, I’m working on the firmware that controls this system. The four motors use 480 volts, but can be controlled very precisely.


The Perkins Telescope.

Dr. Dierdre Hunter and Predoctoral Fellow Hongxin Zhang were using the Perkins that night, but were kind enough to let us fool around taking pictures. They are studying dwarf galaxies in an effort to learn more about star formation.




The John Hall Telescope.


The dome of the John Hall telescope in the moonlight.

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Arizona Desert

January 01st, 2010 | Category: Arizona,Work

What do you think this is? Tree branches at night? A satellite photograph of rivers?  Care to guess?


Scroll down to find out…









Here it is in color:


It’s dry desert mud .

In the next image of a cactus flower, there is an insect inside. I’ve looked at many flowers in the deserts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona; there seems to be a different kind of insect that’s specialized to hang out inside each type of flower.


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Telescope developments and Sedona

September 11th, 2009 | Category: Arizona,Lowell

Recently my Dad and his family visited, so I took them out to see the Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT)  site.  Below you can see a couple of views of the telescope and the mirror coating chamber.  The chamber will be used to put an aluminum coating on the mirror; the coating will be only a few molecules thick.  When in the telescope, it will be open to the elements (when it’s being used) and not protected from dust by anything other than occasional blasts of cleaning gases. So every so often, it will have to have the aluminum coating replaced.  The mirror will be removed from the telescope, transported on rails into the auxiliary building, washed with acids and put into the chamber, where under a vacuum we’ll vaporize some aluminum filaments, coating the glass with the metal.  The layer of aluminum will be 400 atoms thick.


After visiting the telescope we went to Sedona and watched the sun set.  A nearby forest fire created a dramatic sunset.

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A visit to Anderson Mesa

July 16th, 2009 | Category: Arizona,Lowell

My sister and brother-in-law visited and I wanted to show them some cool science stuff, so we went out to the Anderson mesa where Lowell has its current research telescopes.  This area is not open to the public, so it was a real treat.  Of course, I’ve been there many times, but it always excites me.  These telescopes are a little antiquated and small by modern standards, but still very impressive.  Real science is produced here every year, even every day.  Scientists use these instruments to look for near-earth asteroids, comets, examine the atmospheres of planets, and to look for planets around other stars.

Here’s the LONEOS 25-inch telescope dome.


The LONEOS telescope.


My brother-in-law David near the scope.


The 72-inch Perkins telescope.  The man in the red shirt is Bruce Koehn, Observer and telescope operator extraordinaire.



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Telescope building looking more and more finished

June 22nd, 2009 | Category: Lowell,Work

I’ve been too busy to be creative, so here’s a link.

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Letter to friends

June 07th, 2009 | Category: Arizona,Lowell,Work

Here is a letter I sent to friends recently – I’ll put it here as a catch-all for people I might have missed.

Greetings all!

If you find anyone that I’ve left off of this email, please forward it to them. Omission from this list is accidental!

It has been a few months since I left the Lab and I have been thinking about all of you. After a 6-week marathon session of home refurbishing, car purchasing and all kinds of last-minute details, we (Holly and myself) rented our house to a great lady (who is taking care of our dog) and hit the road. We drove for about two weeks, eventually landing up in Flagstaff, AZ. Along the way, we stopped to see the creation museum in Kentucky (it was like the twighlight zone), Arches national park, monument Valley, many smaller parks, friends along the way, and of course too many interesting roadside sights to mention here. The trip length was 2900 miles.

I have been at my new job for three weeks. The assignment is as challenging as any I have faced at JHUAPL, but the conditions of work are very different. Lowell Observatory is like a big family. There are only 80 people on staff. Everyone knows everyone else. Although I have many tasks, they are all for the same project. I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to be doing next month, and don’t have to fill out a weekly time sheet. Among the staff, there is a sense of work/life balance, but also an intense feeling of dedication to the work and to the institution. There is a sense that the work is important, and a sense of the history of the institution. The campus is situated within a national forest on a small pine-covered mountain overlooking Flagstaff at 7300 feet. There are breathtaking views of mountains and many animals around the place. It is dog-friendly and some people bring dogs to work. In three weeks, I’ve purchased one tank of gas, and probably won’t need another one for a week or two unless I go on a trip.

We have been living in temporary quarters in a historic building on campus; the building is filled with historical curiosities dating back to the 1890s when Percival Lowell began his investigations on the planet Mars. We’ve found a special apartment of our own, less than a mile away from Lowell, and will soon move into it. The observatory is the local center of public science education, in the same way as the Baltimore aquarium (only smaller), so there is a constant stream of visitors. The facilities are open until after dark, and if the weather is good and the sky clear (which it usually is) visitors can look through the historic 24-inch telescope which dates back to 1896. Flagstaff has just the right balance of small-town and large-town features. The place has an old town district with many locally-owned businesses, restaurants and art galleries. On the outskirts there is a wal-mart, supermarkets, etc. It is a resort town, but with all the conveniences needed. The grand canyon is 1.5 hours away. Many of the country’s most famous national parks (Zion, Canyon de Chelley, Meteor crater, petrified forest, etc.) are weekend trips. It is a very outdoorsy society and almost everyone you see is athletic and tanned, but in a mountain way, not a Miami way. The city is full of trails; mountain biking, climbing and skiing are big here. In the summer, people come from the desert cities (Phoenix, Tuscon, etc.) to get out of the heat. In the winter, people in Flagstaff can be in the desert in an hour or so to get some alternative weather. Simply walking around the streets on an errand, you can see breathtaking sights like a pink sunset over volcanoes. Like any place it has some problems (traffic from tourists, transient homeless, the danger of urban sprawl) but there is nothing like this in Maryland, even counting the wonderful eastern shore and mountainous western portion of the state.

When I left I promised I’d keep up with my friends back home. Although you are out of sight, you are definitely not out of mind. I am still in the process of processing pictures and writing about our adventures, but some of them are on my blog. Here are the main links. If you’d like to keep up to date, take a look at the blog periodically. I post something at least every week, and will be posting about our trip out here for weeks to come. (the blog main page) (daily maps of progress and short descriptions of that day, keep hitting “next”) (creation museum, this stirred up a minor controversy. See comments at end of post, and also ) (St. Louis) (monument valley) (the telescope) and (pictures of where we live)

Fondly, Dan


The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT)

June 07th, 2009 | Category: Lowell,Work

Recently there was a Lowell Observatory Advisory board meeting.  A couple of my colleagues and myself gave tours of the construction site to  board members.  The discovery channel telescope ( or DCT, so named because of significant funding from that television channel) is being built on a mesa near Happy jack, AZ.

You can see that the building is in an advanced state of construction; the telescope itself is not yet completed and is not yet inside.


The portion on top that is mostly girders – “the dome” will weigh about 1/3 of a million pounds when complete.  It will be turned by four electric motors.  The telescope is a leviathan that will weigh some 145000 pounds and sit on its own bearing and have its own motors.  The dome and telescope will turn together in separate but synchronized motion.


The telescope and the interior of the dome must be kept at the same temperature as outside so that there are no thermal disturbances which will mess up the optical seeing.  To do this, the building has many vent doors which can be opened, as well as active liquid cooling that will control the temperature of the telescope’s mirrors.  Also, air will be drawn through the tubular support structure of the telescope as well as the mirror mount.

Here are a couple pictures of me during the tour, taken by Holly.



Here I am explaining the Active Optics System (AOS).  It is not designed to correct atmospheric distortions, but to control the shape of the main mirror while the telescope moves around. Although the mirror is made of ultra-low-expansion glass, and a chunk of it would seem rigid, you can think of it as a blanket of glass.  It weighs 6,700 lbs is about 4.2 meters – 14 feet – across and only 10 cm thick.  So, as it moves, it wrinkles and sags.  You can not see this with the naked eye, but since the mirror needs to be maintained in shape by only a fraction of a wavelength of light (less than 1 millionth of a meter), it is a problem.  To counteract this, there are mechanical “pushers” around the periphery and underneath the mirror.  These components push, pull and lift the mirror to maintain its shape.  The mirror is not bolted to its mount, because that  would distort the surface to the mirror and thus the resulting image.  It is made to slide around while the mechanical compensators keep it in shape and in the right position.

I am pointing at an engineering drawing of the mirror on its mount.  To my right is a rendering of the telescope which will sit inside the dome.  I’ll really have to get some JPEGS to post here.


Inside the dome, under construction.


One of the numerous dome bearings that will support the enormous mass of the dome structure and allow it to turn smoothly.


View looking up from the mezzanine level.  The temporary wooden structure fills the space that will be occupied by the telescope.


View of the landscape around the telescope site.  It’s in the coconino national forest north of Phoenix.


The day’s pictures (including some already shown above):

For “official” photos of the site as well an engineering documents and more, see here.

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