A functional MagAO-X model

As a thank you gift for Jared’s advising throughout my grad school experience, I wanted to give a knockout gift. Sebastiaan once offhandedly mentioned a useless box. Now, I LOVE useless boxes. When I was a teacher I stumbled across a useless box video which made me cackle; two years later my coworker gave me one as a christmas present on the staff work day before winter break. I showed it to everyone and wore the battery completely down that day. So what about a MagAO-X shaped useless box?

I’ll begin this post at the end with the final reveal. Behold, the MagAO-X useless box. Turn MagAO-X on and who is that turning it off?


Here is the original sketch from my notebook. Except for the location of the switch it came together mostly as originally planned.

I took inspiration for the vizz from this little tiger version. For the mechanism I used the one from a build-it-yourself useless box kit.

Sebastiaan helped me break into the lab (jk I know the code!) and measure everything so it can be perfectly to scale.

It is 1:10th scale.

Design for the legs:

And panels:


The box is made of wood panels and sticks you can get at any hobby store. I used a hobby knife the cut the panels and sticks, with lots of sanding to get them smooth. I didn’t get too many fabrication pics at this stage, which is a bummer. But once all the panels and pieces were glued I used wood filler to fill joints and places where the wood wasn’t flush. I bought a hand sander from Harbor Freight ($10! Bless Harbor Freight) and sanded everything smooth and flush.

I then glued on the wood panels and the little wood stick pieces around the top of what is supposed to look like the air table. The thinner panels tended to curl with the moisture from the wood glue so here I am using the glue to hold it down while drying.

One thing I wish I had pics of was that the DIY kit mechanism required me to buy a soldering iron and learn how to solder!

Because of the design of the DIY box kit, putting the switch on the front panels as originally planned didn’t work, because the gear box would have to positioned in such a way that the lid wouldn’t sit down all the way. So I improvised by cutting the lid and placing the switch so that it opened to the side. Here is the video of the first operational test of the mechanism.

You can’t see it here (but you can in later pics), but I put little hinges on the lid with the switch to enable opening it, and I used the hinges from the DIY kit for the side of the lid that needs to open. I also cut a door out of the back panel to enable changing the batteries.

I then set up a makeshift spray booth in my back yard. I removed the mechanism and gave it many coats of black, sanding in between to make the wood soft, and finished with a sealer.

Here is the assembled painted product. Notice the box of tiny gold hinges and the brand new soldering iron in the background!

Here is the mechanism from the DIY box kit. It’s mounted the bottom of the lid so that it rests down flat when not on, then pushes up the other side of the lid when turned on. There is a little reed switch behind the arm which opens the circuit, and a little wood protrusion from the back of the arm which depresses it. When the switch is flipped on, the current turns the motor to raise the arm up, the protrusion releases the reed switch. When the arm flips the switch, the current reverses and brings the arm back down until the protrusion depresses the reed switch again and breaks the circuit.

Here you can also see the battery door. I mounted the battery pack on the door so it’s easy to replace the batteries. I also put a fancy bead on the door as a fancy door handle, and a latch to hold the switch lid.

Next it was time for the details. I printed all the logos in secret using the office printer cause I don’t have a color printer. I painstakingly cut them out with an exacto knife trying to replicate the curves and white borders of the real stickers, then stuck them on with Mod Podge. At the time I was making this, the “Clean Top” sticker on MagAO-X was missing the e so I blacked it out with marker! (Now the whole thing is almost gone). I also glued little pieces of foil on the corners of the air table to mimic the corner bumpers, and cut circles out of gold craft foam for the eye piece port on the side.

Adding the stickers with a reference photo in the background:

For the panel clamps, I used beads. I found some large-ish black beads and small silver beads or close to the right size (I did measure them!) and glued them together, then glued them to the panels in the right place. This was a huge pain in the ass and I had to try a few different glues to find the one that made them actually stay stuck. I also used the small silver beads for the panel support screws.

For the handles I used a thick crafting wire, bent to the right size and shape, and covered it with electrical heat shrink tubing which shrinks to the size of the wire. I glued some black beads to the wire to help them stick to the panels.

Finally it was time for the vizz. I used brown and yellow fleece and sewed a little paw, which I stuffed a little bit and slid over the arm. I made toes by hand sewing little imprints with black thread. I had to make sure that the end of the arm still hit the switch, which involved moving the paw around a bit to find just the right spot. I then used fabric glue to glue the end of the fleece to the wood arm and used some yarn to tie it down for good measure.

The head took several tries. I got several rabbit patterns off etsy that had potentially suitable heads and tried to scale them to the correct size. It took several trial and errors on the best pattern and the right size. Once I had a suitable one I put little eyes and nose and whiskers, then made ears of just single pieces of fleece and hand sewed them on.

I put a little piece of velcro on the head and the bottom of the lid so that that head comes up when you activate the switch. I also attached a loosely stuffed fleece tube to the bottom of the head as a suggestion of a body.

Finally I sewed a little tail out of the brown fleece and glued a little strip of a darker brown fleece as the stripe down the tail. I glued and sewed the end shut and put a little piece of velcro on the top and under the hinge on the side of the box so it looked like a vizzy tail hanging out the side, but it won’t interfere with the hinge.

That’s it! All done. The MagAO-X Useless Box.

Congratulations Dr. Logan Pearce!

It’s been quite a week for our intrepid veteran-turned-teacher-turned-professional-astrophysicist. The hardest part of the dissertation defense is usually scheduling it at a time all your committee members can attend, and this time was no different. In true Texan style, Logan lassoed her committee and roped them in to a defense in-person and online this June 11th, 2024.

Unfortunately, I was only able to watch the public portion of the defense from afar via Zoom. I also vicariously enjoyed Logan’s big day through the subsequent vignettes dropped context-free in our Slack’s #blog-ops channel.

(I think of these as a sort of wishful thinking. Posters wish a blog post into existence by posting things that might illustrate it. Well, who am I to deny them?)

Logan began with a title slide crammed full of the stuff she’s been working on these past five years:

That’s me in the picture! I’m in the “18” by “Participants” on Zoom! (Photo by Eden McEwen)

She gave an overview of MagAO-X, for which she published the first ever peer-reviewed science paper using the instrument:

Twinkly star goes in, scienceable star comes out. Any questions? (Photo by Eden McEwen)

Gave the people what they crave (i.e. astronomical discoveries):

We got one, folks! (Actually, eight.) (Photo by Eden McEwen)

And let us know where we can find her in the near future:

At the Michigellan Telescopes, of course (Photo by Eden McEwen)

Because we’ve never been sticklers about anything*, the party to celebrate Logan’s defense took place before the successful conclusion of the defense. Frankly, I’m gutted to have missed it. Fortunately, former-pastry-chef-future-Dr. Jay Kueny made Logan’s favorite pineapple buns in my stead. (No doubt with Melanie’s help!)

*Except label maker use, circus activities, and other important lab rules.

I’m told a pastry chef can make a pretty darn good pineapple bun (on the first try, too!)

Meanwhile, back in linear time, Logan was locked in a room(/Zoom) with four dangerous scientists and had to escape with only her wits. The labmates / COVID bubble-mates group chat—now scattered between California, New Mexico, Tucson, and New York—waited anxiously for word that Logan had surmounted her final academic trial.

Did she beat school?

Dear readers, of course she did.

The group chat accordingly recognized the ascension:

A full program of celebrations was called for, beginning with further chef magic from Jay.

By “chef magic” I am of course referring to how Jay just happened to have non-alcoholic Grand Marnier on-hand. (Photo by Eden McEwen)

The Cardboard Crowning of newly-minted Ph.D.s is a tradition as old as the academy itself. (Don’t quote me on that.) So, naturally, Logan was not about to get away without a hat pointing out what giant nerd just got all doctorfied.

From now on, you have to wear that getup to do astronomy. It’s the rules. (Photo by Eden McEwen)

Some more glamour shots of the extremely regal crown Eden made:

Celebrations for Logan continued that evening with beers at the site of her triumphs, with a special guest appearance by the Director of Steward Observatory and head of the Department of Astronomy at University of Arizona: Dr. Buell Jannuzzi.

Logan’s miniature MagAO-X crafting project (Photo by Eden McEwen)

What’s that he’s looking at? Well, there might be a blog post about that soon. Sure looks like there’s a dang viscacha in that instrument.

Song of the Day

Today’s song of the day is brought to you by the temperature delta between June in Tucson (high: 109ºF) and Michigan (high: 84ºF).

“Too Darn Hot” by Ella Fitzgerald (really, the definitive version, don’t you think?)

Bonus Hedgehog

I modeled this hedgehog in a Ph.D. tam for Logan with the intent of getting it 3D printed. Turns out 3D metal printing is, like, expensive. But it was too good to keep to myself.

Congrats to our 2024 Grads!

XWCL has a lot to be proud of this graduation season. Our best and brightest donned their funny hats and walked across their stages. What? You haven’t seen their defense blogs yet? Shhhh. The actual degree part, they’ll get there. Today is for celebrating!

First up was the Optical Science graduation.

Maggie and Co. lining up for their PhD walk!

Maggie Kautz getting hooded by Dean Koschel and Advisor Laird Close
Katie Twitchell, Valedictorian, giving the convocation address.

Next up was the ceremonies at the Steward Observatory:

Logan Pearce in her PhD regalia.
Logan and the other PhD graduates!

We wish them the best of luck in their future work!

Congrats on the Academic pageantry, and we can’t wait to see you all defend!

Song of the Day

For the Time Being by Sammy Rae & The Friends

MagAO-X 2024Ab Day 17: An Intercontinental Tale Told in Pieces of Cheese

Chanco Cheese:

Chilean cheese.

Rating: 4/10

This cheese tasted a lot better on the first day of the MagAO-X observing run. However, by day 17, the mild flavor of the Chilean Chanco cheese just did not speak to me in the same way.

Chanco Served With Jam

Chilean cheese with jam.

Rating: 7/10

My decision to combine Chanco with jam at the very last LCO breakfast of 2024 Ab turned out to be a MAJOR game-changer. The sweet and savory flavors proved to be the perfect pairing like peanut butter with jelly or Jay with disk images or Logan with hedgehog illustrations or Jared with the electronics rack or…well…you get the idea. It’s unfortunate that I made this discovery just before leaving, but perhaps the cheese + jam blend is something to look forward to during my next sojourn in Chile.

Actually butter.

I can’t believe it’s not cheese!

Rating: 2/10

This cheese at El Pino was rather disappointing, as it actually turned out to be butter. Jay misled me.

Dairy-free substitutes.

I interrupt my cheese-based recap to showcase some images that are lacking in lactose.

A view of The Andes from La Serena en route to Santiago.
Rumor has it, the Ruby Tuesday houses some orange + melty items.
Some fries in the La Serena airport.

LATAM Lounge Cheese

A slice of brie nestled between a strawberry and 3 pieces of lettuce.

Rating: 7/10

The main event of our travel day was none other than the LATAM airlines lounge cheese. Points were deducted for the hefty price of admission: Cash + a crumpled up boarding pass. However, points were added back for Jared being kind enough to invite Jay and me into the lounge. My favorite cheese from this experience was the red wine rind-washed (try saying that 3 times fast) parmesan. Unfortunately, this cheese is not pictured.

LATAM “Gratinated” Ravioli

Rating: 8/10

I was extremely grat(i)ful for the opportunity to partake of this perfect, pomodoro-based pasta. The high ratio of cheesy filling to starchy exterior made this dish particularly appealing.

May your parmesan be gratinated.

This dinner deserved its own bonus picture. I awarded additional points for the use of the word “gratinated” in the item description.

LATAM Flight Egg and Cheese Sandwich

Peep that cheese.

Rating: 3/10

Although the cheese wasn’t awful, this sandwich left something to be desired.

Maybe the real cheese was the friends we made along the way.

Say cheese!

After a long day + night of travel, Jay and I posed in the ATL airport train (it broke shortly after).

The best 15 minutes of the day:

The first piece of sharp cheddar I will eat when I get home.

P.S. This post was so cheesy that it was banned from the Atlanta airport’s public WiFi network.

Song of the Day:

There Are No Cats In America – An American Tale

MagAOX 2024Ab Day 16: I Still Believe

The Picard Principle states:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose.”

That is life.

My wrap-up posts have always been somewhat triumphant. But not this time, ‘cuz that just sucked.

To be clear the MagAO-X team did what they always do, and the instrument was ready to rock like we always keep it. We’re all just bummed that we didn’t get to let it off the chain to go hunting planets and disks and other exciting things. We just sat there, sometimes actually hiding under a blanket.

A quote:

“Laird and I agree that this was the worst continuous stretch of bad seeing we have seen in all that time.”

Morons. Apropos from this run:

“Why would you say that?”

It can always get worse. One’s dome has to be open for one to measure seeing. As I type this in my room, body trying to decide what schedule we’re going to follow tonight, my window is vibrating as the wind climbs and the stars fiercely twinkle.

Why not blow us off the mountain?

As Leden said, Jay, Josh, and I stayed an extra day to get one more Empanada Sunday.

They’re even better with seafood soup.

Since we were here, and to make sure it was a business expense, we did take the time to re-cable MagAO-X. Best 15 minutes: split over two 7.5 minute moments when the MEMS deformable mirrors came alive with no problems and we didn’t have to re-cable.

If exao1 has your key, MagAO-X is all yours.

We’ll be back, probably in November. In the mean time, MagAO-X is available for any eXtreme Wavefront Control experiments you have. A few of us will stop by around September to tighten some bolts, etc.

Don’t worry. It can always get better too.

I must confess, I still believe.