Updates

IfA Checkup and Upgrade

For the first time in years, I took a trip to Maui where the primary reason was actually to have fun. But of course I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to visit LaserSETI! And my father-in-law was kind enough to come along for the ride and even give me a hand–literally and figuratively.

It’s always a pleasure, after long drive up the mountain as the last step of the journey, to climb the stairs of the Airglow Building and see the instruments, peacefully sitting amongst the incredible scenery.

The main bit of work we did, besides inspection and maintenance check, was to install a 19V step-up transformer, because we’ve found that the USB bus on this newer generation of NUC computers can be a little finnicky when supplied with 12V like everything else in the instrument. Since the science cameras and disk are connected via USB, any issues in that department are big issues.

Checking in on the air filters, it was clearly time to replace them. Apparently summer is a dusty time up there on the summit. These MERV 13 filters aren’t cheap, but they do a their job very well and have demonstrated a very reasonable operational life expectancy.

LaserSETI @ RFO Speaker Series

Tomorrow night, May 26th, I’ll be kicking off the annual Ferguson Observatory Speaker Series. We’ll start from SETI basics, explain how LaserSETI is designed, and take questions. It’s free, it’s virtual, and they’ll give you your money back if you don’t learn anything!

Historical Transients

When it was announced a couple of years ago, I thought VASCO was a great idea and important work. Today, an article was published “70-Year-Old Astronomy Photos May Be Clues to Alien Visitors“, and despite the accurate but click-bait-sounding title, I’m glad to see they’ve done that work well, with great care and attention to detail. As with any general audience article on science or medicine, I encourage everyone to at least open the original paper to see what else you can glean from it, especially since this is a pre-print and is expected to evolve before publication.

Sample candidate, credit: Villarroel et al

While I’m quite pleased with the quality of both the article and the paper, I’d feel like I was leaving something out if I didn’t say that, based on what I see in the paper, while I agree the linear structure indicates fast-moving objects, I don’t think one can assume that the whole event is captured by a single plate, and thus we’re unable to constrain its angular velocity and therefore altitude. That puts them well within the range of a lot of high-speed and high-altitude experiments being done in southern California at the time, including the infamous Area 51, in Palomar’s neighborhood.

Map showing 10 different military bases near Palomar Observatory, credit: Bing Maps

VASCO has some great ideas of other catalogs to analyze, which I think is the right next step in any case. They’ve shown there’s some interesting events to be explained in our collective archives, and science is always better (and easier) with many data points. I look forward to seeing how this story evolves!

Franklin Antonio

It is the way of this world for life to grow, prosper, and pass on, to make room for new life. But the passing of Franklin Antonio, co-founder of Qualcomm and benefactor of LaserSETI, is more than just the regular machinations of nature.

Franklin Antonio, a co-founder of Qualcomm, has died. He was 69.
Photo credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

I’ve had the pleasure to know a great many bright people, but Franklin stands out on the list. In any area he was passionate about, he could go toe-to-toe with professionals and win. Chip-level software, astrophysics, or feeding those in need–he knew how he wanted the world to be better and was a determined and overwhelming force for doing so.

It’s fair to say that half the LaserSETI instruments in the field today are due to his generosity and shared vision of searching the universe for life. I still remember how thrilled I was to have his support, and I’m gratified I got the opportunity to thank him for it and show him the difference he made with me and on our project.

Driving Efficiency and Reliability

A LaserSETI instrument is full of computers, sensors, and other electronics, and hence it’s also full of wires. Each wire has to be cut to length, connected firmly, and worked around carefully when performing any other operation on the instrument.

The current base design

It’s therefore very exciting that we’ve designed a custom PCB (printed circuit board) that can reduce all that complexity, effort, and risk. Thanks to today’s modern electronics ecosystem, it’s easily outsourced and since it replaces existing COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) components, these benefits add nothing to the cost of an instrument.

IFA2 power distribution after bypassing camera relays (and with most of the wiring tucked behind)

We’re not quite done making sure every need and clearance is accounted for, but we’re close. Since these traces will carry a decent amount of current, however, we have at least validated the current flow, trace width, copper thickness, and resulting temperature increase is very well within limits (credit: PCB Trace Width Calculator). We want both the boards to be super reliable for the long term, even when it gets hot inside the instrument on some days or at some locations.

Same Stars, Different Weather

As predicted by the forecast below, RFO is socked in tonight. Tomorrow night should be really good, however.

Astronomer’s forecast, credit A. Rahill

The first three rows mostly characterize moisture in the air (a lot tonight, very little tomorrow night). Seeing represents turbulence, but that doesn’t affect us much because our pixels are big, which is because our field of view (FOV) is enormous (75 degrees!). Darkness matters a lot however for the same FOV reason. And this week, the Moon rises and sets with the Sun, which makes the nights nice and dark because the Moon isn’t lighting up every tiny water droplet and mote of dust that happens to be floating around the sky.

And so this is what the sky currently looks like at Ferguson:

Live view screen capture from RFO1

However, at the same time, looking at the exact same stars–but from underneath a different part of the atmosphere–IFA2 is having a great night:

Live view screen capture from IFA2

Hopefully, tomorrow night it’ll stay this way in Hawaii but also look like this in California!