Unparalleled views

Ask most people about Hawai‘i, and sun, surf and beaches may readily come to mind.  But ask individuals who are fascinated by the field of astronomy about the islands, and their eyes will light up for an entirely different reason.

Over the past four decades, the Aloha State has become the world’s most sought-after location for the construction of large ground-based telescopes. The arrival of these telescopes was strongly promoted by the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and, as a result, the IfA has become one of the leading astronomical research centers on the planet, with offices and laboratories on O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i Island.

Within the next seven years, Hawai‘i will welcome four new telescopes that will be constructed at two superb observatory sites: the 3,000-meter peak of Haleakalā on Maui and the 4,200-meter peak of Mauna Kea on the biggest island of Hawai‘i.  Both high-altitude sites are known for their remarkable clarity, dryness and lack of atmospheric turbulence.

“With the excellent facilities already existing on Mauna Kea and Haleakalā, and with the next generation of the world’s most powerful telescopes expected to arrive soon, Hawai‘i will maintain an international leadership role in astronomy with its central position in the Pacific,” said IfA Director Günther Hasinger.

The first to arrive will be an addition to the existing Pan-STARRS telescope, PS1, which has been conducting survey operations since December 2009. PS1 is the most powerful survey system yet built with a 1.8-m primary mirror and an optical design that provides sharp images over an exceptionally large field of view.

In early 2013, a second Pan-STARRS telescope, PS2, will be installed about fifty feet north of PS1 on Haleakalā. The PS2 telescope and its camera are very close in design to PS1, with a few improvements based on IfA’s experience with PS1. Its features will allow astronomers to survey the entire visible sky in four nights to detect “killer asteroids,” supernovae and other transient objects. Data collected from PS2 will open up a new dimension in studies of the solar system, the galaxy, and the most-distant objects in the Universe.

The ultimate goal of the Pan-STARRS project is to build the PS4 observatory, which is expected to replace the 40-year-old UH 2.2-m telescope on Mauna Kea, the first large telescope built in Hawai‘i. PS4 will employ four optical systems and will help detect billions of star and galaxies, and millions of asteroids.

Solar scientists are always trying to predict how the sun will influence global changes here on Earth. “Our best models of what the sun is doing don’t work,” said IfA astronomer Jeff Kuhn, while explaining why we need the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) about to be built on Haleakala on Maui. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a collaborative effort involving researchers from IfA and scientists from 22 other institutions around the world. The ATST will be the largest solar telescope ever built, and the largest single advance in solar research capabilities since the days of Galileo.

Climate changes, on timescales ranging from a few years up to the times over which cultures and civilizations grow and perish, are affected by the sun’s variability. As researchers have found in the past, there is no doubt that the sun has caused climate changes that make current trends in global warming look mild. “Unfortunately, we do not understand and cannot predict these effects even over the next decade,” said Kuhn, who serves as co-investigator on the project. “The ATST will allow us to see how magnetic fields affect the sun and the solar system environment between Earth and the sun.” The ATST is expected to have its “first light” in 2018.

Also scheduled for completion later this decade, at a location atop Mauna Kea, is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Building on the success of the 10-meter twin Keck telescopes—now the world’s largest—the 30-meter primary mirror will be composed of 492 segments, giving the TMT nine times the collecting area of today’s largest optical telescopes. The TMT will enable astronomers to detect and study light from the earliest stars and galaxies and test many of the fundamental laws of physics.

“Thanks to its large mirror and advanced adaptive optics system, TMT will provide the sharpest images ever obtained of planets around the stars,” said IfA astronomer Mike Liu. “This will allow us to observe them in the process of forming and to measure their temperatures and compositions. Such measurements will tell us how our own solar system formed and if similar systems are common throughout the Galaxy.”

The TMT is a joint partnership involving the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Department of Science and Technology of India, and National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are also participating in the project.

Pardon the puns, but the ongoing observation at the IfA is that things are definitely looking up.  For more information about the Institute for Astronomy, visit www.ifa.hawaii.edu.

Top photo: The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope atop Haleakalā captures celestial objects above Hawai‘i with its unique Gigapixel Camera and sophisticated computerized system. Photo by Rob Ratkowski © 2010 PS1 Science Consortium.