Mauna Kea’s Eyes On The Skies

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - July 07, 2010
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This graphic shows data from the low-resolution imaging spectrograph, one of Keck’s most sensitive instruments. It shows the spectrum, or unique chemical fingerprint, of 37 stars in the cluster NGC 6791

Because of its dry, stable, pollution-free air and its elevation above sea level (almost 14,000 feet), the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea provides for optical telescopes the clearest view of the skies of any location on earth, according to the World Class Astronomy in Hawaii Web site.

While visiting my son and his family in Kamuela recently, I could look up at the Mauna Kea summit from his front yard. The site is so naturally, spectacularly beautiful, one can be forgiven for dismissing its importance in the evolving world of cutting-edge astronomy.

Looking at the summit from the north in Kamuela, one can only sort out two or three of the modern telescopes nestled in the barren landscape. But there are actually six.


The two largest are Japan’s Suburu 8.2-meter optical/infrared telescope, and the 8-meter Gemini optical telescope, which actually has a twin in Chile’s Andes mountains. Others include the Canada-France-Hawaii 3.6-meter optical/infrared telescope; the University of Hawaii-operated 2.2 meter optical telescope (with another on Mauna Loa); the W.M. Keck Observatory twin optical/infrared telescopes operated by Caltech, University of California and NASA, and the Smithsonian Observatory, a sub-millimeter array of eight radio interferometers with “dishes” that can be arranged into different configurations.

The twin 10-meter Keck telescopes take their final views of the cosmos for the night as the sun begins to rise over Mauna Kea

Alone and in concert,

“ground-breaking discoveries are being made on this mountain,” writes Julia Steele, editor at large for Hawaiian Airlines’in-flight magazine Hana Hou. “The first and still the only image of a planetary system other than our own was captured in 2008 by the Gemini telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory. There are now 350 known stars with planetary systems, and more are being discovered all the time. The answer to what for eons was a mystery - are there any other solar systems like ours? - is closer by the day. Astronomers from around the world congregate (on Mauna Kea) to seek answers to our biggest questions: What’s out there? What created us? Are we alone?”

Rolf Kudritzky, head of University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, is elated by the discovery of that first “other” planetary system: “It was an absolute breakthrough in our science ... It was the detection of a new world. And every day now you read about another star with planets.”

According to Steele (accompanied by absolutely awesome photographs of new planetary systems the Orion Nebulae and the shock waves of super novas colliding with dense clouds of gases and space dust, recorded by Mauna Kea’s infrared telescopes), the newest telescope planned for the top of the mountain is referred to by some as the “Thirty Meter Telescope.” It’s three times the size of the Keck, currently the largest, and will provide more light and sharper definition “facilitating exploration of stars, planets, dust clouds, galaxies, the very distant universe with far more clarity and precision - less mysterious, more known.”

This simulation image, based on Keck Observatory data, shows the paths of several young stars orbiting the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers have determined that a supermassive black hole with 4 million times the mass of the sun lies at the center of our galaxy

How appropriate that Mauna Kea’s astronomy complex has evolved into the world’s premier site to study the stars and the universe, an endeavor totally consistent with Hawaii’s cultural kinship with the nocturnal skies for navigation and season marking.

There are countless benefits to be accrued by all the people and children of Hawaii, but especially the Big Island. Think of the educational and cultural opportunities for Hawaii’s children living in the proximity of this marvelous mountain.

They will be able to visit the Ellison Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,000-foot level, and be inspired over and over again by their local astronaut hero who died actually reaching for those stars - stars that seem to be getting closer and closer all the time.

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