Telescope Science


A universal trait of engineers is their curiosity with how things work, and nothing arouses more curiosity than the laws that govern the universe itself. Such laws seem to break down at the extremes of size, both on a small scale, in particle accelerators, for example, and on the vast scale, as detected by telescopes. In each case, tools designed by engineers now probe these mysteries, discovering the surprising nature of matter and energy.
—A shining example is the new Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) atop Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona, which enables scientists to study objects like the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. For a personal tour of this revolutionary telescope housed at Mount Graham International Observatory near Safford, I joined Dr. Richard Green, LBT’s director, on a clear, sunny day for the 125-mile drive northeast of Tucson to the remote mountain.
—At 10,700 feet, Mt. Graham rises from the desert like a sky island of unexpected beauty. In contrast to the cactus below, 200-hundred-year-old Douglas fir trees grace the upper reaches of the mountain. Yet by following a final twisting dirt road to the summit, past several security checkpoints, a more unexpected marvel soon appears–the LBT observatory building itself. This $120 million dollar facility is home to the most powerful optical telescope in the world–a 600 metric ton all-steel mount encapsulating two massive 8.4-meter mirrors, each the largest of their kind yet deployed. Indeed, once the mirrors are phased together, this visionary binocular will function as if it was a Cyclops with a single mirror 11.8 meters wide–impossible to produce with today’s technology–and with an angular resolution of 22.8 meters. With a honeycomb design, the mirrors sit on a single mount and are more rigid and lighter weight than conventional solid-glass mirrors. Together they collect more light than any existing single telescope.
—While the telescope’s size is revolutionary, so is its precision, accuracy, and sensitivity. During my visit, I witnessed the lowering of the twin mirrors for scheduled attachment of a red-sensitive camera to a deployment arm and was told that the moveable mount, despite weighing 600 tons, is steered easily under the power of a one-horsepower electric motor. “The structure actually floats on an oil pressure pad, like a rocking chair, thanks to 12,000 PSI,” Dr. Green tells me, “so if you had to move it by hand, you probably could.”
—Added Dr. John Little, LBT’s lead site engineer, “The ride from vertical to horizontal is twelve minutes, or one minute, depending on speed selection of the analog drive.” When I asked if there was any smallest degree to which the telescope could be angled, Little replied, “Not really. With digital feeding, the mirrors will be able to be positioned to resolve one thousandth of an arc-second, or roughly a BB at 32 and a half miles.” Luckily, testing for degradation of positioning at various elevations has revealed almost no deviation. And though counterbalancing is still a problem, considering the heavy instrumentation that will be swung in and out of position, there is a solution coming in the form of a newly designed dynamic fluid system that will pump a water and antifreeze mixture to various tanks within the structure to compensate. “For now we’re using physical weights,” says Little, pointing to what looked like stacked barbell rounds at the ends of the matrix.
The LBT Corporation was established in 1992 to undertake construction and operation of the LBT, which evolved from an international partnership of over 15 institutions from around the world. The University of Arizona (UA), which also represents Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University on the project, holds a quarter partnership in the LBT. The Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica, representing observatories in Florence, Bologna, Rome, Padua, Milan and elsewhere in Italy, is also quarter partner in the project. Ohio State University and the Research Corporation each holds a one-eighth share, with Research Corporation providing participation for the University of Notre Dame, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Virginia. Germany is the fourth quarter partner, with contributing science institutions in Heidelberg, Potsdam, Munich, and Bonn. The Research Corporation promotes the advancement of science in the United States and ensured that funding was available at critical stages of the LBT’s development.
—Work on the LBT began with construction of the one-of-a-kind telescope building in 1996, led by UA. The structure consists of 16 stories, and the top ten floors rotate.
As to the massive 8.4-meter dual mirrors themselves, they were spun cast in Tucson, at the UA’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. In the state-of-the-art facility, housed in the campus football stadium, a huge furnace heated the 20 tons of glass, gently spinning it into a parabolic shape at 2130 F before it was cooled and polished to an accuracy of about 3000 times thinner than a human hair.
—UA engineer Warren Davison developed the telescope’s innovative compact, stiff design in collaboration with other engineers in the United States and Italy. The major mechanical parts for the LBT were fabricated, pre-assembled, and tested at the Ansaldo/Camozzi steel works in Milan, one of Italy’s oldest steel manufacturers. Then the telescope was disassembled and shipped by freighter to Houston, Texas, and overland to Safford. The mirror cell continued to the Mirror Lab, where a team integrated the mirror support system and mirrors into the cell before a heavy equipment moving company hauled the assembly up the mountain. The LBT saw first light in 2005, and the LBT Observatory currently has a staff of approximately 50 scientists, engineers and technicians.
—What type of technical background does it take to work on a telescope like the LBT? Green studied quasars and black holes during his graduate student days, back when he was a member of the science team that built the Hubble Space Telescope instrument that surveyed nearby giant galaxies. He served as director of the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory before coming to LBT a year ago to handle public relations and scheduling of telescope time. A charming and self deprecating man with wide interests, he engaged me in conversation about many topics, from the mostly private funding of the project and its limited access to scientists (outside the consortium of universities involved), to the latest theories about dark energy, the Big Bang, and even the movie Blade Runner. But he is truly an astronomer first.
—Other career paths to LBT played out differently. Dr. John Little, who worked in medical electronics, industrial controls, and military electronics before coming to the project, wasn’t very familiar with astronomy at all, except as an amateur. “I went to Cal State at Sacramento for a degree in electrical engineering and remote sensing, then to the University of New Mexico for a masters in electromagnetics before some work at Utah State in optics,” he told me, his steady blue eyes focused on days past. “So what’s great about working here is that all these disciplines are involved. On top of that, it’s exciting to see the data come in. When we get our adaptive optics running–taking the ‘twinkle’ out of the stars, so to speak–the clarity will be ten times that of Hubble. And so when we’re pulling in images for the first time here, we’ll be seeing them come right off the camera, and that’ll be a thrill.”
—Also working in controlling the axis to position the telescope accurately, but in software rather than hardware, is Chief Software Engineer Norm Cushing, who told me, “At one point in my career I was working on HDTV set boxes, digital recorders and the like, and I realized right away that just wasn’t as intellectually fulfilling. There was something missing. Call it awe. That’s the missing ingredient which LBT supplies.” Immediately prior to his arrival at LBT, Cushing developed software related to satellite tracking. “That background in image processing married well to what happens here, but it’s been a phenomenal learning experience, too. When I arrived, I learned how little I really knew, especially about astronomy. Some know a lot, like Joar Brynnel, chief hardware engineer, who told me he needs his people to understand the concepts to fix problems in a reasonable time.”
—Members of Cushing’s group write low-level embedded software in assembly language and higher level software modules running in Linux that talk to each other through reflective memory. “Algorithms for right ascension and declination are created to actually steer the telescope and make it move to position and track objects,” Cushing explains. “Lower level commands control the motion of the building to follow the telescope.” And is this software new and as exciting as being an astronomer? “All of it is new, written from scratch for this system,” he replies, then adds, “When I was a boy, running around in my PJs, my sister would call me whenever Carl Sagan was on TV. I’d run out, and it was all fascinating. So it’s been a dream come true for me, too.”
Astronomers as Engineers
Not that engineers can’t be astronomers themselves, or vice versa. Take Roberto Ragazzoni from the Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Italy, one of the member institutions of LBT. “I would say one in five astronomers also make instrumentation for radio or optical astronomy,” he tells me. As an astronomer, Ragazzoni once studied planetary nebula in an observatory in Chile. He has extensive knowledge of astrophysics, but now he mostly designs and tests the instrumentation used on large telescopes, and he labels the scale of most of the scientific instruments used on LBT as revolutionary.
—“Two interferometers are being made for this telescope,” Roberto tells me over a plate of spaghetti in the observatory’s kitchen. “One at the U of A, and the other in Germany and Italy.” An interferometer combines the signals of two separate telescopes (or mirrors) almost as if they were coming from separate portions of a telescope (or mirror) as big as the distance between the two telescopes. It works on the principle that two waves that coincide with the same phase will add to each other while two waves that have opposite phases will cancel each other out, assuming both have the same amplitude. The instrument provides unprecedented imaging capability at infrared wavelengths and in its “nulling” mode reduces the glare from stars, thereby permitting the detection of orbiting planets or dust disks, which would otherwise be overwhelmed by the star light. “What’s new is the scale to which this technology is being applied, and also, instead of using a laser for alignment, we use a wider field of view, with the light from several faint stars, which are then combined.”
—With such technology, astronomers can use the LBT to find and image the first Earth-sized extra-solar planets, employing the telescope’s astonishing light gathering power accompanied by an array of cameras, spectrometers, and interferometers –some the size of compact cars and weighing a ton. Or it can map the neighborhood of the inner Milky Way, where a monster black hole flings stray stars off on wild eccentric orbits as if they were mere marbles in a child’s game.
—After Roberto ate his plate of spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, I asked him if astronomers like him were not actually providing a microscope for laymen to see themselves as smaller and smaller as the universe they saw got bigger and bigger in their giant lenses. He laughed. Perhaps I reminded him of the children he once talked to about his work in adaptive optics, when one asked how he “made a star, which was so big, look so small.”

© 2009 Progressive Engineer; article by Jonathan Lowe

Audiobooks 101

Kindle books

Imagine a book that, much as you want, you just can’t drop what you’re doing to read right now. Maybe it’s a mystery or suspense by an author whose movie version intrigued you enough to crave a deeper look. Maybe there’s a whole list of books you’ve been meaning to read. But with so many projects and errands jostling for your attention, you anticipate barking at least one “Happy Holidaze!” before, at last, you can finally flop into that comfy lounge chair.

Why wait, though? Audiobooks to the rescue! These audio movies play anywhere, from car to kitchen to laundry room, enabling you to immerse yourself in magical, romantic worlds beyond the cook stove or coffee table (where you’re either wrapping presents or puzzle-fitting ones described as “easy assembly.”) How fun is this multi-tasking diversion? More fun. (Funner is not a word…although it should be.) More people should give audiobooks a try, too, because it’s the “funnest” way to read.

Narrators should know. They read aloud for a living, and give life to characters on the page via inflection, dialect, and tone. Many are professional stage or screen actors. Their job is to create such believability that they can disappear into the moment, and conjure scenes within the listener’s mind. Before I became a reviewer, I would listen to them while sorting mail at the post office. I got through literally thousands of books that way, while doing repetitive work with my hands. You can too.

Audiobooks come in CD format for your portable, stereo, or car player. This includes authors from Tom Clancy and John Grisham to Janet Evanovich and Ken Follett. I asked actress and narrator Rosalyn Landor about Maeve Binchy’s A Week in Winter: “Binchy was masterful in describing the inhabitants of her stories, so as I picture each one, they take on a life of their own as I speak for them. This one takes you to Ireland, so I hope that if you choose to travel there with Maeve Binchy and myself, you’ll enjoy the experience!”

(©2015 by Jonathan Lowe in COSTCO CONNECTION magazine)


DO YOU BELIEVE ME NOW? (Human-like Robots)

talking robotCreating a Truly Human Sounding Robot Voice
by Jonathan Lowe
No doubt you’ve seen talking or singing robots–and mainly in Japan, where development has been ongoing for over a decade, and where research continues.  Surprisingly, however, the recreation of human speech is more complex than most people realize, and so coming up with a robotic voice which is indistinguishable from human in expression may still be some time off.  What complicates the effect are the variety of vocal qualities which we generate when we talk.  It is not merely that human vocal cords lend vibration to a stream of air from the lungs, and then shape these vibrations within the voice box.  The entire throat cavity, including the larynx, mouth, tongue, nasal cavity, and lips assist forming words and sounds, taking cues from aural feedback processed by the brain.

    “Consider how we are able to speak in the first place,” says Dr. Sayoko Takano, who worked in robotic speech research a decade ago in Japan, and is now doing research into magnetically controlled tongue-operated wheelchairs for paraplegics at the University of Arizona.  “Not only do we have to control respiration, the vibration of our vocal folds, plus our tongue and lip and velum motion, but also the tension of the larynx, the motion of the tongue, and the shape of the vocal tract itself.  No computer voice synthesizer can yet match this complexity without coming off sounding artificial.”

    Dr. Hideyuki Sawada of Kagawa University agrees. “Voice quality depends not only on control and learning techniques, but also on the materials, which should be very close to the human anatomy.  The dampness and viscosity of the organs have influence on the quality of generated sounds, like what you experience when you have a sore throat.  The typical method for generating human-like voices was by software algorithms, but we now try to generate human-like voices by the mechanical way, as humans themselves do.  The goal is to totally reconstruct the human vocal system mechanically, with learning ability for autonomous acquisition of vocalization skills.” 

    In short, what scientists in Japan are doing is creating robots which mimic the way humans actually speak, which is the only way to obtain the qualities that would make you believe a human is speaking.  Of course one might think that building a tongue and larynx robot would be relatively easy, given today’s engineering technology, but again, speech organs are very different from limbs like the leg or arm.  “The tongue is a bundle of muscle assemblages composed of seven main tongue muscles, and there are also lip and jaw muscles adding up to more than thirty combinations in controlling the speech organs,” Dr. Takano asserts. “Each muscle moves by activity innovated in the brain. Since the tongue and lip have an irregular evolution history, they also have both voluntary and involuntary, and also fast-weak and slow-strong controls. So the complex relationship between speech related air flows from tongue, muscle activation, muscle character, and vibration of the vocal fold mean that a non-sentient computer with replicated and motorized parts is still at a disadvantage to a human ‘actor.'”

    Dr. Sawada’s current research with the Dept. of Intelligent Mechanical Systems Engineering at Kagawa, began by first studying how a baby acquires language, and which characteristics are developed in the voice acquisition process. Now he’s developing a talking robot with human-like vocal organs. This robot has already begun to learn vocalization skill by articulating those vocal organs while listening to and mimicking human voices.  In this way, the robot will produce human-like emotional expressions via dynamic articulation. “Current humanoid robots speak electronically, with a speaker system run by software,” explains Sawada.  “We have begun testing a rehabilitation robot for people with auditory and speech disabilities, so that they learn vocalization skill by observing the robot’s vocal articulations. This robot is able to estimate vocal articulations of unclear speech, by listening to voices given by disabled people.  Since the robot knows the normal articulations for vocalizing good speech–from interactive learning with able-bodied people–it can teach disabled people how their speech would be improved by modifying their articulations, showing differences between good speech and unclear speech in the articulations.”

    Rehabilitation therapy and mechanical reproduction aside, the final barrier to making a truly human-like robotic voice is the real time manipulations of sounds, when we imbue words with spontaneous emotional interpretation.  How far are we from achieving that complexity?  And when will a robot be able to respond to human emotions with human reactions?  “We are a long way from the day of the sentient computer-operated robot,” contends Dr. Takano, “and how far away there is no way to say.  My own feeling is that it may not be 2045, as predicted, but rather a hundred years or more.” Adds Dr. Sawaga, “Regarding the generation of emotional expressions, I’m trying to realize it for a general human-like robot, and not only for teaching of the hearing impaired.  But our robot reproduces emotions by mimicry.  It listens to human speech, and extracts emotional expressions using neural network algorithms. Then it responds to human voices with the same emotional expressions.  It does not think in the same sense that we do.  That is an area beyond my research.  Instead, we are trying to extract articulation parameters from human talking and singing voices with emotions, and clearly, we have achieved success in that regard.”

    Why is Japan a leader in this research?  Surprisingly, it may have something to do with the West’s taboo against building truly lifelike robots. “The Christian ethic figures into it, with a reluctance for western religions to copy the human form, or to make an exact replica or ‘idol’ or ‘image,’ if you will,” Takano says.  Consequently, Japan is at the forefront of human form robotics, not the U.S..  Meaning it’s likely that the first lifelike sentient robot, when it finally has a chance to win American Idol, might be disqualified only because it prefers to sing in Japanese.


(Originally published in Cosmos Magazine)