The world’s two most powerful telescopes are glorious—and vulnerable

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Enlarge / Keck 1 and Keck 2, near the summit of Mauna Kea.
Eric Berger

Our affable guide, Bill Healy, stands beside a spare segment mirror of the Keck Telescope.

Enlarge / Our affable guide, Bill Healy, stands beside a spare segment mirror of the Keck Telescope.
Eric Berger

“Up until a few years ago, all of the telescopes up here pretty much operated under the radar,” he explained during a tour of the facility. “People either didn’t care or they really didn’t know what was going on. But because of all the attention from the TMT, it’s kind of painted us all with the same brush. Where you normally would be happy to wear your Keck crew t-shirt while shopping at Costco, you may not do that today.”

For some natives, the majestic domes that house huge telescopes on top of the mountain seem more like pimples, best popped. As tolerance has turned to tension, legal actions have begun moving through the Hawaiian court system. No longer is it inconceivable that the magnificent telescope Healy and I are admiring, which has in no small way remade almost the entire field of astronomy, might one day be gone.

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Gerard Kuiper, who counted Carl Sagan among his students, is probably the greatest modern planetary scientist. He correctly predicted the composition of Saturn’s rings (ice) and that planets in our Solar System formed when a large cloud of gas condensed. He also proposed the existence of a now-eponymous belt of minor planets outside the orbit of Neptune, and he “discovered” Mauna Kea for astronomers.

After the University of Hawaii dedicated the Haleakala Observatory on Maui to study the Sun in 1964, Kuiper—then at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona—visited. He wanted to determine whether the Maui mountain, topping out at 10,000 feet, might also be suitable for planetary observations. It turned out not to be high enough to remain consistently above the regional inversion layer, so many nights were too cloudy for observations.

However, as Kuiper looked across the Maui Channel to the Big Island, he could see Mauna Kea looming 4,000 feet higher, above the clouds. Soon, Kuiper had persuaded the governor of Hawaii, John Burns, to provide funds to bulldoze a road and construct a small telescope for testing. The site was superb. By 1970, the University of Hawaii had built a 2.2-meter telescope on Mauna Kea. More would soon follow.

The trade winds blow eastward across the islands and, with no other mountains downwind, there is little turbulence. At the peak, water vapor levels are very low relative to most observatories. The inversion layer, too, is a boon at 14,000 feet. During the nighttime hours, clouds sink as the air temperature cools. Even though lights from towns along Hawaii’s coast don’t present that much of a problem, any light pollution from Hilo, Kona, and Waikoloa is often shrouded by these clouds.

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