Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hamburgers and Telescopes Part 1

For most people their idea of a vacation is to travel to a different place with friends, relax and take in some sights, and eat a few good meals. If that is the definition of a vacation then I guess this week long trip to southern California qualifies.

I have a good friend named Don who asked me to help him with an installation job in southern California. Don is one of those friends that is always there when you need him.  I could call him right now and say I really needed his help and he would drop what he was doing and load up and be here in a few hours. He is one of those friends that you cant let down. He would never hold it against you if you couldn't make it but you better be almost dead if you wimp out or you will never hear the end of it.

A couple of months ago Don helped me move the engine lathe I bought using his heavy duty truck and trailer. The scales had definitely tipped in his favor so I was really on the owing side of the fence.When he asked for my help with this project I jumped at the chance to help out. Actually I would have helped him regardless. The installation was interesting to me technically and a great opportunity get out of town for a while with some friends.

Don has been building telescope enclosures for the :Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network. He built one of the first prototype clam shell Aqawan enclosures three years ago and has building them for LCOGT ever since. Ultimately the non profit company wants to link an array of telescopes positioned all over the world and allow professional astronomers and citizen scientists to schedule time on the instruments. Most of the intended locations are remote and require the instruments to be protected from the weather by a remote controlled enclosure like the one below. Pretty nerdy stuff for a guy that is normally a cow puncher.
The Aqawan's have a tubular steel frame and two interlocking clam shell roof sections. The roof sections are driven by two 24v gear motors. Connections to the roof sections is by roller chain. Interestingly they are not counterbalanced at all other than to keep the chain tensioned. The corner of the enclosure that runs on the top edge of the wall rolls on a vee groove track roller.

My part in the story was volunteering to assist my friend Don with an installation on the top of a building in southern California. A group of Caltech planet hunting astronomers are developing the next generation of detection instruments to find earth size planets by measuring tiny wobbles in distant stars. Ultimately the enclosure we installed at Caltech will be moved to a mountaintop in Arizona.

This adventure all started on a Sunday morning with loading the trailers with all the various Aqawan parts and tools. But first there were a couple of machining details to clear up.
This is Don's milling machine. Its actually an old Atlantic jig borer. He bought it from my old toolmaker friend Charlie that I have mentioned here on the blog. Its actually a nice little machine. My first task was to make some shackle plates for the trailer. This was more of a self preservation move on my part. After my last go around with these worn out heavily used trailers I jumped at the chance to save some road side repairs.
I just used a square scribed the hole centers and drilled them. Not very exciting as far as the machining world goes. I couldn't find a single scriber in the shop so I improvised and sharpened a drywall screw. I found a bunch of horseshoe nails but they aren't very hard.
It actually worked pretty well. These screws are pretty hard so it easily scratched steel. I'm sure it will be on the welding table the next time I visit.
The next assignment was to modify a couple of Aqawan parts to accept retaining roll pins. These are stops that are spring loaded that the enclosures halves close on. Normally I would never put an end mill in a nice Albrecht drill  chuck but what the heck I'm on vacation why fight it. I'm going with the flow on this adventure.
We were ready to load the wall and clam shells sections onto the trailers. Don fired up the farm "forklift" and we rigged the sections up for lifting.
One of the wall sections of the Aqawan being moved out of the barn, I mean shop. We wanted the wall sections to stay vertical during transport to make the erection and unloading easier at the job site.
We managed to get everything loaded before dark. There were a few details to take care of in the morning before we shoved off the dock.

One of the important details was to install the new shackle plates I made the day before. The old ones were so worn the holes looked like slots.
After changing the plates we were off. I takes an hour to get from the remote site of the shop to the freeway. With trailers we were limited to less than sixty miles per hour. Its a long drive to LA at fifty five or sixty.
Its an even longer drive if you have to stop to repair the trailer along the way. I was in the truck following the creaky trailer and noticed some tire smoke off the right side when the trailer hit a big bump. We pulled off the road to make a few field expedient modifications.
 This little block of wood saved the day. It lifted the spring just enough with the load on the trailer so the tire didn't rub on the trailer frame. It managed to stay in the whole trip down and back.
The remainder of the road trip was unremarkable other than some crappy fast food. We were able to drop the trailers at the installation site on the Caltech campus late the same night. The observatory dome on top of the building you see in the background is not a telescope but a solar light director called a coelostat . The dome follows the sun all day long and pipes the sunlight throughout the building with fiber optics augmenting the buildings electric lighting. 

This is the big installation day. We have a crane coming this morining to hoist the clamshells and wall sections into position on the building.
Most of this building is below ground. Only about three feet of the building is above grade. It is the isotope handling building where they do some work with radioactive materials. Don had poured the small slab and telescope footings you see in this picture on a previous trip.
The crane showed up right on time. We jumped right into it rigging up the first set of shells and walls. The trailers are parked behind the trees you see on the sides of the crane. The radius was only about thirty feet but the height we needed to clear the trees was pretty good.
 Shamrock crane sent a neat little five ton rig built on a Ford F-750 chassis. Mike the operator told us he can pick a thousand pounds sixty feet straight out which is fairly impressive. The clamshells and wall sections are fairly light but the crane access was pretty limited.
One of the long wall coming over the pesky tree. We needed to set the walls first and then re-rig the clamshells to install them on the walls.
In this shot were squaring and leveling the walls of the Aqawan. Mike the crane guy is waiting for us to get everything ready for the next lift.
With the walls squared up and level it was easy work to land the walls in place and connect the pivot links. I would hate to think about trying to do this without the crane. I would have been tempted to rent the thing myself it Don hadn't already done it.
Second side. We were able to rig the sections level by adjusting the heavy duty ratchet straps. The pick points were threaded holes with eye bolts.
It only took about three hours from start to finish to get to this point. The boss let us get some lunch after the crane left. The crane was on the clock so we wanted to be done with it as quickly as possible.

We ended up finding a great lunch spot right down the street. How can you go too far wrong with a place called Pie 'n Burger.

Stay tuned for part 2. Thanks for looking.

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