Time Lapse videos!

Since the launch of this website, we’ve had live images from all the cameras: science and internal “pi camera”. But it’s a lot easier to really understand and explore what the instruments are seeing when you can watch how things evolve across the whole night (or day). So, without further ado, please head on over to the Live Status page, and watch some of the movies!

There’s a subtle red line underneath each thumbnail to help indicate they’re clickable. Each one should be the last full day or night cycle. That is, if we’re observing, it’ll be last night’s movie, or during the day, it’ll be yesterday’s daylight hours.

A Long Overdue Multi-Part Update

Hello again, friends and supporters.  It’s been far too long since I’ve sent an update. It’s been a challenging journey from the point we shipped off the instruments and, if I told you every twist and turn since then, this update would be so long that no one would read it! The short explanation is that I kept hoping there would be a good moment to tell the story without leaving things in the air, but things were just too crazy and busy. Please accept my apologies and promise to do to better.

What I do have for you is an update in multiple parts. The first two parts were written 7 weeks ago, and the last part will catch you up from there.  Thanks for bearing with me and I hope you enjoy hearing all about it!

October 28, 2021

I’m writing this on the plane back from Hawaii, after a 48-hour trip where I spent the majority of my waking hours on the summit of Haleakala. 

It gives me great pleasure to say that both instruments were installed “successfully” in August, and (I believe) are now working fully.  The summit is a stunningly beautiful place, both objectively as well as for astronomy.  So, in addition to searching for Near Earth Objects (NEOs) with PAN-STARRS and studying the solar dynamics as never before with DKIST, the Haleakala Observatory will also be searching for technosignatures with LaserSETI!

[Above: IFA2, the southeast-facing instrument, Below: IFA1, the north-facing instrument along with the Air Force’s satellite-tracking telescope is barely visible in the upper left corner]

For reference, the instruments at Haleakala look at the same set of stars as the insturments at Ferguson (RFO) in Sonoma, CA.

Knowing how scenic the summit is, we setup a camera to take a time lapse, and the battery almost lasted the whole time.

I’d especially like to thank the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) staff, who’ve been very helpful to the project during these difficult pandemic times.  Also, as you can see from the time lapse, the setup work was a team effort with the critical help of the SETI Institute’s own Assistant Director Steven Bourdow, as well as my son Jason.  It really takes a village to make LaserSETI work, and that couldn’t have been more obvious in the past couple months.

The second half of this update, which details the challenges of the installation, starts with the shipping company puncturing one of the two cases with a forklift, and unfortunately in a way that’s clearly unrelated to intentionally manipulating the case. I found out just before boarding the plane, and when I arrived, I was relieved that they didn’t damage the instruments. But they did skewer the 12V DC transformer that powers everything.  “No problem,” I thought, we’ll just order a new one, and I’d purposely planned extra days into the trip precisely in case something went wrong beyond the array of spare parts I’d shipped with the instruments.

The day before I planned to leave Hawaii, after chasing all over East Maui Post Offices, the replacement arrived, and I pulled it out of the box to make sure it wasn’t damaged.  I drove it up to the summit, installed it, and powered on our gear. But none of the six exhaust fans worked.  “That’s weird, I thought, I tested those a dozen times. And all of them??” As I tried to repair them, fuses kept blowing but I could find nothing wrong with the wiring.  A little voice told me to check the input voltage… and it was 24V, double what it should be!  Suddenly, in my head, Han was yelling at Chewie “Turn it off! Turn it off!” and I ran to kill the power.  The two transformers were identical except for a 12 vs a 24 in the model number.  I didn’t notice and apparently neither did Amazon.

It was the end of our last full day, and there was nothing to do but go home.  The state of every component in both instruments was in question, and nothing was on the network for me to connect remotely. As I mentioned before, the IfA team is great, so I shipped in a _new_ new transformer and, after carefully checking the model number, they swapped it in.  We then did some networking magic to connect into the gear and make it remotely accessible.  Finally, I could assess the state of the equipment.

Fortunately, the heart of the instrument, the science cameras passed a whole battery of tests, and the networking and Intel science computers checked out too.  The raspberry pi is the central nervous system, with sensors and the motor to open and close the sunshade, which protects the camera shutters from the Sun during the day.  One pi was wiggling the motor but not able to open the sunshade, the other pi was offline completely.  If we had to be unlucky with this double disaster, at least they were inexpensive components, and also not the router which would’ve made the whole system inaccessible.

Meanwhile, we’re going through the claims process with the shipper who punctured the box to begin with (resolved painfully but satisfactorily) and Amazon (like the Energizer Bunny, it’s still going).  We also built new raspberry pi’s, to prepare for complete replacement of the existing ones in both systems. This was more challenging since all our tools and spare parts were in crates still stuck on Maui due to the claims process then a scheduling incompatibility between the shipper and IfA.

And so, in the past 2 days, I swapped out the motor controller boards in both pi’s, focused all four science cameras, and dealt with a couple of other minor issues that cropped up.  In addition, our shipping cases should be on their way back to CA, and a new one is being manufactured to replace the punctured one—since we don’t want contaminants or pests taking up residence in the new instruments during the case’s next voyage.

December 17, 2021

More good news and less-good news.

First, the less-good news. When I arrived home in October, the two IfA instruments were performing well. Then, occasionally two of the cameras would exhibit a strange, transient issue that was easy to clear. Then, it started happening more often and not clearing as easily. So I engaged the camera manufacturer to get their advice. Just after I did that, however, the two cameras—one in each of the two instruments, unfortunately—went completely offline, and no amount of Fonzie’s Magic Touch™ could coax them back online for further diagnosis, repair, or workarounds. Adding insult to injury, that’s when severe weather hit the Hawaiian Islands, causing blizzards and more at high altitude. The summit lost power for about 4 days and networking connectivity for 9.  Apparently, they had to splice in 200 feet of new fiber a couple miles from the summit, in a spot that was a 3 hour hike to get to, and the first time they tried the equipment didn’t work due to the altitude!

The instruments dutifully came back online earlier this week, with frost covering their windows but that cleared after another day or so. Yet still both troublesome cameras remain offline. At this point, I’m fairly certain we’ll have to use the two spare cameras we’d ordered for the next batch of 10 instruments to swap into the IfA instruments, then hope the camera company can repair the damaged two to replenish our supply of spares.

At the same time, RFO2 (the second instrument at Robert Ferguson Observatory) experienced a similar increasing failure pattern with the hard drive that the instrument writes the camera data to.  For a long time, once every couple of months, the hard drive would go offline and require a little software Fonz’ing to get it back. Not ideal, but no big deal. Then, within the span of a couple weeks, it happened more often, then every time we started trying to take data, then anytime we accessed the drive at all. Figuring the most likely cause was the drive itself or the USB enclosure, I ordered replacements and made the 3-hour round trip to swap it in. It looked good at first, but then went straight back into its previous pattern. So I made the trip again, this time with a new USB cable and PC. I swapped in the cable, ran some tests, and everything looked good. Relieved that I didn’t have to perform the hardware and software surgery to swap in a new computer, I went home.  That worked great for a couple days, but then it went back to stuck offline. To allow some data-gathering until we can head up there again, I’ve jury-rigged it to write its data to RFO1’s hard drive. The process is intensive enough that single hard drive can’t keep up if both instruments are capturing data, but something is better than nothing, even if just for a short while.

Besides the fact that RFO1 continues to chug along as the Opportunity Mars Rover to RFO2’s Spirit, there’s other good news. After months of claims, almost 100 emails back and work, issues and workarounds, ordering and coordinating, and over 5 weeks in transit (when the outbound journey took barely more than 1 week), on Friday we picked up the cases with our tools and spare parts, along with the replacement case for the punctured one. In addition to closing a long saga, it will be a lot easier to build new instruments and work on the ones at RFO with those!  Here’s LaserSETI team member Dan, with our crates loaded up and the punctured one left with the shipper (which they required to settle the claim).

In closing, I just want to thank you all for your support and bearing with us through this difficult year. If we had a dollar for every time things were harder than they needed to be, we could fund the global observatory, but every time I also knew I was blessed to be pursuing this effort on behalf of all of you and that many others had difficulties far worse than anything we experienced.

We will have more news to share soon, but for now let’s just say: Happy holidays to you and yours, and best wishes from all of us at LaserSETI and the SETI Institute!

Good news and great news!

Feb 24, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome to another LaserSETI update!  I hope 2021 is treating you all better than 2020 and, to help with that, I have good news and great news.  I apologize for the dearth of pictures; I hope you’ll find it exciting, nonetheless.

First, the good news:  The less-than-great news is that travel restrictions had prevented us from installing the other two LaserSETI instruments on Haleakala. Still, the good news is there are no remaining roadblocks, and we’re starting the process of crating them and final preparation for Installation Day: Haleakala Edition.  We don’t have a date on the calendar pinned yet, but—knock on wood—it’s going to be soon.  My hope is April, if not March.  We can’t wait to get these two beautiful boxes of science on the sky.

Second, the great news:  LaserSETI is growing!  My original, personal bar for success was to build the instruments so we could see if they delivered the kind of science I’d expected, and it was with your help that we’ve achieved that.  But the project’s goal has always been a global network monitoring all the time, all the time.  We’re officially starting the next phase of the project to build and deploy TEN more instruments. 

This phase isn’t just an on-paper exercise, however:

  • Twenty-two cameras are being manufactured as we speak. Recall there are two cameras per instrument, plus two spares.
  • The enclosure fabricator is eager to deliver a literal ton of stainless steel! (907kg for those of you appropriately offended by imperial units, or 41.7 billion Planck masses for the particle physicists)
  • The plan calls for at least three new observatories spanning the western hemisphere, and we’ve already gotten initial agreement from 2 of these ideal and exciting observatories!

Kermit the Frog cheering

(Ok, I lied: one picture)

And perhaps most importantly, we’ve also secured a large part of the estimated $540k minimum funding required to do this next phase!  While we’re not currently planning another crowdfunding campaign, federal funding is only slowly reawakening to SETI, so we’re still a privately funded effort.  If you or someone you know would like to continue to support us, please go to https://seti.org/givenow, check “Write us a comment,” and mention LaserSETI.

I hope you’re as excited as the whole LaserSETI team is about where we’re heading, both geographically and upwards. I look forward to writing the next update on First Light at Haleakala!

Going to the Mountain

October 22, 2020

It’s exciting times for LaserSETI!  In this update we’ll talk about the state of the instruments, both in California and Hawaii, and deployment plans for installing the latter.

As probably many of you heard, the fire season this year in California was unprecedented.  Those of us in the Bay Area will likely always remember the Day It Looked Like Mars, which was a little bit neat for those of us who’ve dreamt of living on the Red Planet, but mostly scary –  a pretty good simulation of a nuclear winter, perhaps.  The most recent set of fires, generally referred to as the Glass Fires, did actually enter Sugarloaf Ridge Park where Ferguson Observatory and our LaserSETI CA instruments reside.  Fortunately, CalFire proactively protected the observatory and worked hard to keep the fires from pushing any further south into the park.  We’ll continue to work closely with the great team at Ferguson to do everything we can to keep the observatory safe, and our hearts go out to all those affected by these catastrophes.  It really hits home for us at the SETI Institute when one of our colleagues lost his home in the Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz mountains.

(You can follow Ferguson Observatory here)

The evacuation orders have lifted but Sugarloaf Ridge Park is still “closed for infrastructure repairs.”  So, unfortunately, after a week of not being able to observe due to the smoke in the sky, we were then without power for over a week, and just got back on the sky two nights ago.  But just last night, as a precautionary measure, I stopped the observing process and secured the instruments, because Pacific Gas & Electric started forecasting a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) in our area.  When weather deemed hazardous to their infrastructure is forecasted, they shut power off to avoid starting more fires.  This isn’t the first time in the past year that we’ve had extended observing interference, but I think it’s now the longest, most complicated, and dramatic!

As soon as possible, I’ll be heading up to check on the instruments and do some upgrades. I never saw any significant soot accumulate on the enclosure windows, but it’s a good time to double check and replace the air filters. I’ve got new light baffles which should have greater longevity and will reduce the pressure on the sunshade opening. And most importantly, I’ve got new LaserSETI decals to put on the covers, since we had to remove the old ones when we applied the white thermal paint.

Speaking of which, I thought everyone would enjoy seeing the newly built and tested instruments. It’s all white but the covers are white thermal paint to help keep the instruments cool, while the rest is simply powder coated so the instrument will blend in in situ. You can see the piano hinge of the new wiring box design which not only saves money, but makes it much easier to access that space. My favorite improvement, though, are the handles on the cover. That component weighs about 60 lbs. so now it’s much easier to remove and put back on! You can also see the new relays underneath the power distro box in the front, which now allow both computers to be rebooted by the other, in addition to the original capability of rebooting the cameras.  If you want to learn more about the components and design, let us know and we can have a Facebook Live or dedicated update.

Long story short, the instruments here in California have taught us a lot on how the designs could be improved.  The differences may not be immediately apparent to the untrained eye—which I suppose is a positive sign that our designs were pretty good to start with—but there are over two dozen separate improvements to the enclosure and supporting electronics.  All of these have been incorporated into the two new instruments soon heading for Hawaii, and as many as possible retrofitted on the instruments installed at Ferguson.  There’s not a lot we can do about the wildfires, high winds, power outages, and pandemics that slowed progress and interfere with observing, but we’ll keep doing whatever we can to be prepared and adjusting as necessary!

And finally, the big news is we’re finally able to announce our location in Hawaii. The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy has agreed to host the two instruments shown above on the summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui!  The site is at 10,000 feet above sea level (3000m) and is absolutely outstanding. 

As you can see on this rendering, we created for the state Site Plan Approval application, our neighbors will be PANSTARRS 1 and 2, another awesome project focused on transients!  And if you were wondering why that truss was underneath one of the instruments in the previous picture, now you know: so we can see over the railing.  It was no simple matter, however, for it to be able to tolerate winds over 130 mph!  The other instrument doesn’t need that, as you can see from the rendering below. 

We’re working on the shipping and final installation details now, but the good news is at least Hawaii’s mandatory 2-week COVID quarantine can now be bypassed with a negative rest result within 72 hours of flight departure.  As it stands, we’re shooting for First Light to happen before the end of this year! It is 2020, though, so I would hold off ‘cashing that check’ until installation actually happens!

As usual, we’ll have a lot more to talk about in our next installment, probably 4 to 6 weeks from now, and I think you’ll find it worth the wait. As always, thanks so very much for all your support!