Saturday, August 13, 2005

Murphy was a high-voltage electrician.

This is a true story. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. As more details become known, I may piece together more of what happened, and update this entry. This is the story of five telescopes (including three of the world's largest), a laser, a transformer, and the events of Friday, August 12.

It was about 2:30 AM on the 12th when the laser beam at Keck II went off. Gary, the Observing Assistant (that's Keck's name for a telescope operator) called out to the laser spotters and told us it'd be about 20 minutes before they started "lasing" again, so I hopped into the vehicle I'd been using as a windbreak, and tried gamely to keep warm in my jeans, t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, knit cap, hooded full-body "bunny suit" and 2 layers of gloves. It was a beautiful starry night near the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, but a cold and breezy one.

Twenty minutes later, my "break" was extended by another 15 minutes, but my relief spotter on the west side, Theresa, showed up shortly thereafter. It was time for me to head inside and sleep for about 40 minutes. Theresa mentioned that shortly before she came out, the lights in the lounge had flickered, and the phones had displayed some sort of alert message. I told her the laser should be back on soon, and headed in. As I neared the door, I heard the giant exhaust fans, which suck cool night air through the observatory all night, stop. I'd never heard the stop during operations before.

Inside, I stripped off the bunny suit, sweatshirt, gloves and hat, piled them on the floor as a pillow, and lay down. My walkie-talkie crackled with chatter from the Observing Assistants, Night Assistant and Laser Operator... pretty normal when they've taken the laser offline and are tweaking it. Except they were talking about chillers being offline too. I turned down the volume and went to sleep.

About 3:40, I woke up, and rapidly learned a few things. First, all four spotters (that'd be Theresa and me from the west side, and Ron and Nick from the east side) were inside the building. That meant the laser wasn't going to be back on for a while. Second, my walkie-talkie wasn't shutting up, because thirdly, a whole bunch of stuff wasn't working. I trundled down to the Keck II control room and found Christine, the laser operator, who said there'd been a power problem.

Having run another nearby telescope for almost a year, I knew I had to contact operators at other facilities and determine whether they were affected. I phoned NASA's infrared telescope facility (number memorized), and they said they'd seen no power issues. Then I looked up the number for the United Kingdom's infrared telescope (now memorized) and they said they were fine as well. Both seemed surprised to hear that anyone was having problems. I told Christine the results, and she mentioned them to headquarters, which spurred someone there to call Subaru (Japan's national telescope) - no problems there either.

I noticed that the hallway smelled like diesel exhaust. Obviously the generators were, or had been, on. According to the walkie-talkie, the chillers and "ice wagons" that keep the instruments and laser cool were still offline, along with those exhaust fans and a few other things that really aren't supposed to abruptly stop working. Like an elevator.

By the time I caught up with the non-Christine parts of the night staff, they were huddled around a phone talking to headquarters. Something had gone seriously wrong with the power. Instead of three-phase 480 volts and three-phase 240 volts, they were looking at one phase each of 480, 440, 390, 280, 240 and 220. Their generator wouldn't switch off, because it could tell the power wasn't where it should be. And a bunch of equipment wasn't liking the new and excitingly different voltages. Particularly, it turned out, the pump for the cooling system.

Of course, the designers of the system had included a spare pump on the other side of the pump... but hadn't run wires to it to facilitate easy cutover in the event of an emergency like this. The staff were trying to figure out whether the spare pump would pump glycol in the right direction if they simply switched the wires over to it. Of course, this also involved figuring out where the screwdrivers were, where the wrenches the right size were, and where the voltmeter was, and so on.

I asked if I could be of any help, and they said I could watch, but that they weren't really sure what to do either. I watched for a while, then decided that as a lowly temp agency employee, I probably didn't really belong in the machinery room, and went back to the lounge to check on my fellow spotters. They were all asleep or surfing the web.

Usually, we leave the summit at 6:00. This particular morning, our departure was a half-hour late, and I didn't get home until nearly 8:00. I already knew I had to leave town around 2:00 in the afternoon, go back up to the summit, and top off an instrument at my other job, so I got what sleep I could.

I woke up around 1:30 and checked my email. The NASA division chief had just sent a message to everyone in my department at the university saying that NASA's power was off due to the electric company working on fixing the results of a transformer fire. Blink, blink! I replied (to all) and said that it might be linked to the events at Keck earlier, then I headed up the mountain.

At the mid-level facility, I was informed that around the time I got home, a transformer over by Keck that serves Keck, Subaru, NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii had been found in a rather hot state. (Betcha it started having problems right around 2:30 AM, and that's what made the power to Keck go out of phase!) Fire trucks from the county, and the nearby military base, had been called up to the summit, and once they were done, the electric company had been called, arriving some 5 hours later in typical electric company fashion.

I reached the summit, checked in with my friend Kenyan, a ranger there, and learned that NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii had gotten their power restored, but the electric company was probably still working on Subaru and Keck. Fortunately, the observatory I was working at in the afternoon was on a completely different circuit, so it was unaffected.

Subaru's power wound up being restored about 4:30 PM, after an outage of perhaps 8 hours. NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii were offline from about 8:30 AM to 3:15 PM. Keck... poor Keck. When I left the summit somewhere after 5:00 PM, the electric company trucks were still over there.

The tricky thing about power outages at observatories is that merely restoring power does not make things all better. When the power goes off (or, when the generators run out), the cooling systems go off, and when the cooling systems go off, instruments start warming up. If instruments warm up enough, they become useless until they're pumped back down to vacuum and refilled with liquid nitrogen or pricier yet, liquid helium.

Canada-France-Hawaii, NASA and Subaru were without power for 7-8 hours, and I don't know whether they had enough generator capability to keep their cooling running for that long. Keck was without stable power for somewhere over 14 hours, and their instruments would almost certainly have warmed up in that time. In each case, instruments would have to be properly cooled before nighttime observations could resume.

Overall, it was an exciting, interesting day on the summit, but not at all in a good way.

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