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W.M. Keck Observatory: 20 years of observing the universe

<p>Taft Armandroff, director of Keck, left, speaks with Jerry Smith, who was project manager during the construction of the Keck observatory.</p>

Taft Armandroff, director of Keck, left, speaks with Jerry Smith, who was project manager during the construction of the Keck observatory.

<p>Andrew Cooper, electrical engineer at Keck, shows one of the educational interactive displays that will be on display at the open house. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Andrew Cooper, electrical engineer at Keck, shows one of the educational interactive displays that will be on display at the open house. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

<p>Pete Tucker, laser engineer, shows an interferometer that will be part of the educational interactive displays at the open house on March 16. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Pete Tucker, laser engineer, shows an interferometer that will be part of the educational interactive displays at the open house on March 16. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

<p>Marc Kassis explains the concept of MosFire (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) in his office at the Keck Headquarters. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Marc Kassis explains the concept of MosFire (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) in his office at the Keck Headquarters. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

<p>Bob Goodrich works in his office at the Keck Headquarters in Waimea. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Bob Goodrich works in his office at the Keck Headquarters in Waimea. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

Keck Headquarters in Waimea will offer an open house to the public on March 16. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Keck Headquarters in Waimea will offer an open house to the public on March 16. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
<p>A model of the Keck telescopes is on display in the lobby of the headquarters in Waimea. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

A model of the Keck telescopes is on display in the lobby of the headquarters in Waimea. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

On March 16, 1993, the first Keck telescope on Mauna Kea turned its optics skyward and began collecting data about the universe. In celebration of the observatory’s 20th anniversary, a series of events has been planned for the week of March 13-19, to commemorate the scientific accomplishments of this world-renowned institution. The events of Keck Week include a scientific meeting, an open house at the Keck headquarters in Waimea on Saturday, March 16, and a special free showing of the film “Contact” on Sunday evening, March 17, in the Kahilu Theatre.

When the first ten-meter telescope was being built for the W.M. Keck Observatory, no one in the world knew how to make the 42 mirrors that were needed, said Jerry Smith, project manager during the building of the observatory, from 1985 to 1996. The glass used for the mirrors took six months to cool to room temperature, eliminating imperfections that would distort images. The mirrors then needed to be polished to near-perfection, which took many more years and millions of dollars.

The original budget for the optics was $15.1 million, but after multiple problems with polishing the mirrors, the final cost reached $34.9 million.

“This was our dream job,” said Smith. Compared to the daily uncertainties and tight timetables of his former assignments working in the “space business,” Smith said there was “no stress” about the job of building the world’s most powerful telescope.

Astronomers started observations at Keck I in March 1993, and brought Keck II online in 1996.

“Our mission from the beginning has been to be ‘on sky’ every night,” said Debbie Goodwin, director of advancement for the observatory, “and in 20 years, we have yet to reach our full potential.”

The Keck I and II are the biggest and most scientifically productive telescopes on the earth, said Robert Goodrich, observing support manager. Because of this capability, the observatory hosts hundreds of visiting astronomers every year, each with their own research projects. University advisory panels select the research that will be approved for work at the observatory, and scientists are assigned to a limited time slot “on sky” to complete this data collection, he said.

“The astronomers who come here are experts in their field, and our job is to help them with the ‘how’ of their research,” said Goodrich. “These experts are here, live, real-time, doing their work,” he said. “They can change and adapt as they go,” he added.

“My job is to make and maintain new gadgets,” said Andrew Cooper, an electrical engineer. The telescopes’ mirrors have not changed much at all in 20 years, but the instruments for observing, recording, and interpreting the data about space are constantly being improved.

Cooper is in charge of maintaining the adaptive optics, or AO system, which uses computers to constantly fine-tune the spectral data by accounting for the distortions that happen when radiation passes through earth’s atmosphere. Keck is now three to four times sharper in detail than it was at its launch due to the AO system.

One of the newest instruments at the observatory is MOSFIRE, the Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration. MOSFIRE allows researchers to view the infrared spectra of many different space objects at the same time, said Marc Kassis, support astronomer.

Infrared radiation is useful for looking at objects that wouldn’t be discernible with visible light because of their faintness and location within areas with obscuring space dust, including young stars and the centers of galaxies, he said.

“It’s the coolest thing. Usually we can only look at one object at a time. With MOSFIRE, we can observe up to 46 objects at once,” said Kassis.

The astronomers and staff of the observatory are eager to share the story of Keck with the community at their open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 16.

“We will have everything from liquid nitrogen ice cream, to hands-on optics demonstrations, to talks by cutting-edge astronomers,” said Goodwin.

For more information about the W.M. Keck Observatory, the open house, or astronomy news, visit their website at keckobservatory.org.