Confronting Change

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed working with the Hydra spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s a piece of instrumentation that allows astronomers to observe up to 90 objects simultaneously during one telescope pointing. The WIYN telescope can see one square degree of the sky at a time. Hydra has a set of optical “buttons” which can be placed on a metal plate at the position where an object will be in the field of view. These buttons send data to the spectrograph two floors below via fiber optic lines. The device that places these buttons is a robot, which resembles the claw from crane machine. It picks up each button from a parked position and puts it where it belongs.

Sticker on Hydra’s side

This type of multi-object spectrograph is somewhat common now, but Hydra was one of the first of these types of spectrographs built in the early 1990s. In fact, the instrument is older than the WIYN telescope and I helped to commission the instrument in its first version at the Mayall 4-meter. Precision machines like the Hydra gripper suffer a lot of wear and tear in 30 years, so a little over a year ago, Hydra began an upgrade process. The engineers worked with Prod Design and Analysis in El Paso, Texas to upgrade the gripper with new technology. The folks at Prod were struck by how much the gripper resembled a crane machine’s claw and added the sticker you see in this first photo.

Hydra Control Rack

As you might imagine, I’ve become quite familiar with Hydra, working with it off and on for almost thirty years. However, making major changes to the instrument meant learning new procedures. The original Hydra gripper was an analog device that “knew” where buttons were by counting steps using a device called an encoder and then remembering those steps to go back and pick the button up again. If there was some electrical noise or a mechanical problem that caused the count to be less precise, it could miss picking up the button. The upgraded Hydra also uses encoder counts, but it has added new programmable logic controllers and video analysis. It goes to the button, takes a picture, analyzes that pictures and then adjusts it’s position, if needed, to get the button. All this new logic has meant that we have a new control cabinet in the telescope to house electronics. The hope is that this will make positioning more accurate. However, it has meant learning new ways to monitor the process of the gripper at work and recovering the gripper if problems occurred.

This past week was one of the first times I’ve had to use the upgraded Hydra without one of the engineers on hand in case problems occurred. I made sure to review the manual, because it had been several months since my introduction to the upgrades and I reviewed the troubleshooting procedures. The first night of observing started out quite smooth. We had four field setups without any problem whatsoever. Then on the fifth field configuration, a heart-stopping problem occurred. The Hydra control program crashed while the gripper was carrying a button to a new position. Of course, these buttons and their attached fibers are all very delicate and if Hydra forgets the button’s position, there’s a risk that the attached fibers could get tangled. This could prove to be a very expensive problem.

In the old days, a problem like this automatically meant going into the dome, which is a cold proposition on a winter night! Then with a long stick , carefully reaching into the instrument and releasing the button from the gripper jaws, which allow you to open the instrument. After that, you’d have to manually place this fragile, optically sensitive button and fiber back into its stow position. In short, it’s a delicate procedure to do when you’re cold and on a lift in a dark dome!

The new Hydra Handpaddle

Now we have a handpaddle, which lets us talk to the gripper directly. I went to the Troubleshooting guide, refreshed my memory and followed the instructions. For the most part they worked. I was able to control the gripper and set the button down in a controlled way. Unfortunately, we’re still working out some bugs, so I still had to open Hydra and check the button’s real position, but it was a much quicker, safer operation.

Confronting change in procedures that had grown familiar and routine was definitely scary and a little challenging. The things that helped me manage my discomfort were focusing on the familiar parts of the routine, reviewing the new procedures before starting work, and then when a problem did happen, I took a deep breath and used the instructions and my experience to solve the problem the best I could. This past week, the upgraded Hydra moved from a machine that presented me with a little anxiety to a machine I look forward to understanding better.

Virtual October

October has been a busy month filled with virtual events. I visited the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club and discussed my novella Revolution of Air and Rust about a week ago. Then, I spent much of this past weekend attending and presenting panels for Denver’s MileHiCon. Like most events in 2020, it was held virtually. While many events I’ve attended have been free, this one had a paid membership option, which allowed attendees to interact with people live as panels were presented. In the case of pre-recorded panels, panelists were often available to answer questions on Discord or the MileHiCon website. My reading for MileHiCon was from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust. I read the chapter where Pancho Villa attempts to raid a United States military camp in Chihuahua, Mexico, but then finds himself transported to another world.

Now that you’ve seen the reading, you may be interested to watch the virtual book club meeting where we discuss the book. This video is hosted at Facebook, but you do not need to be logged into see it.

Although there was a paid membership option, MileHiCon has generously placed most of the panels and presentations online at YouTube, so you can watch them, as with my reading above. This gives you a unique opportunity to watch the panels even if you couldn’t attend them as they premiered. You can find the presentations and panels at YouTube’s MileHiCon 52 virtual channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Jb4d-cTGK9VkHoAEhePjw/videos

Before the convention, I recorded a presentation about Kitt Peak’s NEID Spectrograph which will be used to look for Earthlike planets around sunlike stars. Of course, when I proposed this presentation back in the spring, I fully expected we would have been observing and would have had results to share. I didn’t expect that we would just now be getting ready to return to observations. Still, I give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the spectrograph, describe how it works, and share some of the interesting results from NASA’s TESS mission.

In addition to my presentation, I participated in a panel discussion about “The Year in Science” with Ka Chun Yu, Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, and Courtney Willis. Most of us on the panel were physical scientists, with two of us being astronomers, so we started out with a heavy emphasis on astronomy, but Will McCarthy steered the discussion to the year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the effort taken to defeat it and how we’ve learned to work in this year.

I encourage you to go over to the MileHiCon YouTube channel and check out many of the other presentation. You’ll find readings by people like Connie Willis, David Boop, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams, Carol Berg, and S.M. Stirling. You’ll find even more science panels and panels discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.

As it turns out, I wrapped up the weekend with a couple additional virtual events. I discovered that YouTube streamed a recording of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds over the weekend. I’m a fan of the album, but this was the first time I actually got to see the entire stage performance. Unfortunately, the performance was only available for a limited time and it’s been taken down, but I was glad for the opportunity to watch. Also, I attended a nice interview with Charlaine Harris conducted by Steven Foley of the Vampyre Library Book Club in New Orleans. This interview is still available, but you have to be a member of the club to watch. Fortunately, membership is free and you can join at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. My novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is the featured book at the club for November, so if you join now, you can participate in my interview at the end of next month.