Removal of Mauna Kea’s first telescope marks end of era

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Posted: Aug 22, 2008

A storied chapter in astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi has come to a close with the removal of the first research telescope located on Mauna Kea. The University‘s 24-inch telescope was built in 1968, two years after a smaller, temporary site survey telescope had been placed on Puʻu Poliʻahu. That was removed by the time construction was completed, and the 24-inch instrument became a 40-year fixture of Mauna Kea‘s scientific community.

"This telescope had a lot of history," said UH Hilo Astronomy Professor William Heacox. "Even though the years of wear and tear had eroded its capabilities, we were still sad to see it go."

Funded by the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, the facility was operated from the beginning by the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy (IfA). Even after its transfer to UH ownership, it continued to be referred to as the "Air Force 24-inch telescope" or "AF 24-inch," to distinguish it from the Planetary Patrol 24-inch telescope, which was later replaced by the Gemini observatory.

During its early years, the AF 24-inch was used for a wide variety of scientific observations. In the 1970s when few large telescopes were available, UH astronomers conducted pioneering observations of objects in the solar system, including asteroids and the outer planets. As new and larger telescopes took up residence on Mauna Kea, it took on the role of a test bed for the large instruments designed for the bigger instruments.

The instrument‘s frequent use in support of larger and heavier instruments eventually took its toll, and its accuracy in tracking the Earth‘s turns declined. With limited capabilities, astronomers began to rely more on the new, larger telescopes as its use shifted more to occasional student training in observational astronomy and observatory operations. Even so, the telescope remained an important research and learning tool, with UH Hilo faculty and students using it to collect data for more than 13 published research projects since 1995.

"It is fair to say that most, perhaps all, of our astronomy graduates have learned how to ʻdo astronomy‘ with the old 24-inch telescope in its unheated dome," Heacox said. "I have probably spent more than 100 nights using that instrument, and did most of my Ph.D. thesis research with it in the mid-1970s. Professor Richard Crowe and instructors Norm Purves and John Hamilton have similar histories."

The recent removal of the old telescope and installation of the new dome clears the way for a new, larger telescope for the exclusive use of UH Hilo astronomy faculty and students. The new telescope is being funded by a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, while building reconstruction, which is currently underway, will be paid for by University Repair and Maintenance funds.

The new telescope is being built by Equinox Interscience, Inc. of Golden Colorado, where the instrument is being assembled. It will be shipped to Hilo for installation shortly after building reconstruction is completed, around mid-October. The instrument will eventually be remotely operated from the new Science and Technology Building on campus, providing students with observational astronomy training second-to-none.

"We‘re talking about good old fashioned nuts and bolts research," Heacox said. "Our students will have plenty of opportunity to get time on the telescope and co-author research papers for publication, which is going to add a lot of value to their undergraduate degrees."

The selected name for the observatory will be Hoku Keʻa, the Hawaiian navigational name for the Southern Cross. Its motto will be "Knowledge is the pathway to the stars."

In yet another symbolic changing of the guard, the removal of the old instrument coincided with the arrival of the new facility‘s first Observatory Director. Dr. David James, a highly respected astronomer with international credentials, came to UH Hilo from Vanderbilt University.