UKIRT has just undergone the largest operational change in its 31-year history. On December 13 2010, after several months of planning and preparation, UKIRT was operated in a fully remote mode for the first time and it is now a full-time remotely operated telescope.
On June 4 2010 the Director JAC announced that UKIRT would switch to “Minimalist Operating Mode”, which entailed plans to operate the telescope remotely from the JAC offices in Hilo from January 1 2011. Ever since the telescope was commissioned in 1979 it has always been operated by a crew at the summit consisting of a telescope operator (now Telescope System Specialist, TSS) and either a member of the science staff or visiting astronomers. In the new operating mode there is no summit crew at night and all observing is controlled by a lone TSS in the new remote control room at the JAC building, although there is still the opportunity for visitors and staff to sit with the TSS for a night of observing.
A number of things had to be in place before the switch could be made. The number one priority was the safety of the public atop Mauna Kea when we open in the evening and of course the safety of the facility. Our current mode of operation requires someone to be at the summit when the dome is opened to ensure that members of the public are at a safe distance from the dome, the dome itself is free of ice and snow and the dome interior is free of obstructions. Fortunately, since the JAC operates two telescopes on Mauna Kea, the JCMT night-time crew are available to perform this task and they visit UKIRT on their way to the JCMT to coordinate opening with the UKIRT TSS at sea level. During the night, we will have both infrared and low-light cameras that can be used to monitor the facility which will eventually allow us to open the dome without assistance from the JCMT, although for now we still require a crew to be at UKIRT for the initial opening every evening.
Other facility safety measures include automatic shutdown in case of power failure or a breakdown in network connections between Hilo and the summit, and of course the JCMT night crew are available in the event of an emergency. For this reason we currently only open UKIRT when the JCMT crew are at the summit while we learn about the new mode over the coming months. Facility security is of course also a concern and we have taken measures to secure and monitor the dome overnight.
Unfortunately the arrival of first severe winter storm this year disrupted our planned switch to remote observing. Dr Omar Almaini and his research student, Caterina Lani, were due to observe as normal the two nights prior to the switch but the storm delayed the trip to the mountain until Monday afternoon. Still, on Monday night, with the two visitors at the summit along with myself, Tim Carroll ran the telescope, instrument and observing queue from Hilo with little or no intervention from us in the summit control room. This was repeated for one more night and then on Wednesday 15 December the telescope was operated with all of us at the JAC and an empty summit control room. This time, Jack Ehle was the on-shift TSS. Since then all our night time observing has been done from Hilo.
UKIRT Head of Operations