Luxor tech keeps Sky light on the beam

Apr 25, 2005 12:37 AM

Selling his electronics business and moving to Las Vegas turned out to be the brightest idea John Lichtsteiner ever had.

He’s got one of the most intriguing jobs in the valley: overseeing the most powerful beam of light in the world — the Sky Beam at the Luxor.

Lichtsteiner’s official title is Technical Manager of Rides and Attractions and he’s been with the Luxor since the doors opened in 1993. His background is engineering and electronics, so taking custody of the Sky Beam was a natural fit.

Some of the Luxor staff affectionately call him "fast walking John" and after shadowing him for an afternoon, I see why. He moves at the speed of light, and with good reason — he’s got titanic sized responsibilities.

Lichtsteiner ’s accountable for essentially one thing in regards to the Luxor Sky Beam. "I have to keep the lights on," adding with emphasis that, "Safety is a big concern for me, I have to make sure nobody gets hurt, and so far we’re doing okay."

He’s also responsible for making sure his staff has the tools and parts to maintain the system, and "training the troops on proper procedures to ensure safety."

Understanding how the Sky Beam works can be enlightening to those who believe it’s just one colossal light bulb. Instead, it’s comprised of 39 Xenon lamps each sitting on a base that’s at least six feet tall.

"The base is something so big, you can’t get your arms around it," he said.

These 39 Xenon lamps unite, creating the illusion of a single magnificent beam. It generates 42.3-billion candle-power, meaning if you had 40 billion candles and you lit them all and got them focused in one direction, you’d have the Sky Beam.

A celestial clock dictates when the lights are live. "This clock knows sunup and sundown and always waits until 45 minutes after sundown to turn the light on," he explains.

Of course, when its occasionally cloudy in Vegas, the Sky Beam is harder to see, prompting calls to Lichtsteiner at home. "I do get calls when it’s cloudy from folks who say they can’t see the light," But Lichtsteiner , like the guy with Motel 6, simply tells them the light is still on. "It’s just harder to see the Sky Beam when it’s overcast."

Don’t go to your local appliance store asking for Xenon lamps. A company called Ushio manufactures them for $1,250, with the lamps lasting 1600 hours and providing 7,000 watts of power. If you’ve got the urge to look at these potent bulbs, don’t. Gazing could prove hazardous.

"If you could look directly down into the light for a period of time, you would be permanently blinded" Lichtsteiner says. "It would be like looking at the sun. But it’s okay to look up at the beam from anywhere on the ground."

He added that you can’t keep your hand on top of the lamp for more than five seconds or "you’ll start cooking."

Changing a Xenon lamp is like night and day from unscrewing your average bulb at home. The electricity must be turned off and the lamps cooled for at least two hours before technicians show up, donned in flack jackets, leather gloves and full face masks!

When a lamp is removed, that’s when they’re most likely to combust (actually explode). So what happens if one of these explosive bulbs is dropped?

"If you’re holding a grenade, you’re not gonna drop it!" Lichtsteiner points out.

By the way, Lichtsteiner ’s ability to make the Luxor Sky Beam more efficient means the electricity bill is not through the roof. The yearly bill totals $58,281, in exchange for 480 volts of juice from Nevada Power.

Getting to the apex of the Sky Beam at the top of the Luxor pyramic takes a fair amount of physical dexterity. There are no elevators going up 80 feet to exactly where the lights are, only a series of sharp staircases and elongated ladders will get you there.

It’s a crystal clear day as Lichtsteiner and I ascend to the pinnacle, where we meet 39 gargantuan holders that accommodate brilliant lights that connect to create the Luxor Sky Beam. As I stare in amazement, Lichtsteiner proudly tells me, "We believe this to be the most powerful permanent focused installation of lights in the world."

Who am I to argue? On a clear night, Luxor’s Sky Beam is visible up to 250 miles from an airplane at cruising altitude, and 10 miles into space one could read a newspaper by it’s light.

The Sky Beam is out of this world, literally. It’s one of only two things that can be seen from outer space. The other is the Great Wall of China. If you’re ever lost in Vegas, it’s good to know you’ll have the guiding light showing you the way!