Posted by Pat Daukantas, OPN senior writer/editor
Many of the articles I write for OPN originate either from OSA meetings or from phone interviews I conduct from my office at OSA headquarters in Washington, D.C. However, for my cover story in the September issue, I had the chance to attend the most recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu and visit one of the world’s major astronomical meccas: the giant telescopes on Mauna Kea.
I left on Sunday, May 27, and spent the rest of the day traveling to Honolulu. The conference started the next day, which was Memorial Day. The AAS meets on a semiannual basis, and generally its summer meetings are smaller than its winter meetings. There were about 1,200 registrants, including press. So this conference was roughly comparable to OSA’s Annual Meeting in size.
My stint at AAS
On Memorial Day, I attended a number of sessions, including an invited talk by cosmologist John Tonry on sky surveys and the future of astronomy. A sky survey is a series of wide-field images of as large a portion of the night sky as possible, archived for the astronomical community to use in future research projects.
For decades, the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, taken on glass photographic plates with the 48-in. Oschin Schmidt Telescope during the 1950s, was the gold standard in optical sky mapping. In recent years, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) have been bringing terabytes of optical and infrared data to the astronomical community.
Now there are several current and future projects out there to extend the sky surveys into the Southern Hemisphere and in specialized directions. In addition to the scientific benefits, these sky surveys give useful work to some telescopes that aren’t quite as big as the world-class 8-m telescopes I wrote about in my OPN article.
Some of these surveys will also use new technology, such as Pan-STARRS, which will use the world’s largest digital cameras. Here is an image of a test camera for Pan-STARRS that was on display in the AAS exhibit hall:
In this photo, you can see me in the real-time image display on the right-hand computer:
While at the AAS meeting, I did a sit-down interview with Richard Green, director of the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory. The LBT uses much different technology from the twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. I also conducted a phone interview with Geoff Marcy of UC Berkeley, whose team searches for exoplanets around nearby stars. Geoff couldn’t attend the AAS meeting because he was in the middle of an observing run on the Keck telescope. However, he graciously made himself available to the AAS press corps during a convenient time in the Hawaiian time zone when he should have been sound asleep.
Speaking of the press corps, I must say “thank you” to Steve Maran, AAS press officer since 1985. At many past AAS meetings, Maran has arranged off-site trips for reporters covering the conferences. At my first AAS meeting in Boston in January 1989, Maran escorted reporters on a tour of the Itek Optical Systems plant in Lexington, Mass., where the mirror blanks for the first Keck telescope were being ground, polished and tested. University of California Observatories astronomer Jerry E. Nelson, the driving force behind the Keck design, had explained in great detail the then-untested idea that 36 actively adjusted hexagonal mirrors could form one 10-m-aperture primary optical element.
For this year’s AAS press trip on May 31, Peter Michaud, the Gemini Observatory’s public information outreach director, also worked extensively to make sure that staff members from the various telescopes would be on hand that afternoon to show us reporters around, answer questions and make sure that we didn’t die of altitude sickness at 13,700 feet.
The trip to Mauna Kea
We started our “Mauna Kea day” with a light breakfast at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, a cool new science museum for the public in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hilo, a cozy city of about 40,000, has the closest airport to Mauna Kea.
Several astronomers, including Min Yun of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (one of my alma maters) and Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii, described the research they are doing at the various Mauna Kea observatories. We saw a brief planetarium show that integrated traditional Hawaiian tales with modern cosmology, which was of particular interest to the people on the press tour who do planetarium shows and other public outreach activities. Then we were divided up into three groups for the long, slow uphill drive in three rented four-wheel-drive vehicles.
We stopped for lunch at Hale Pohaku, a.k.a. the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, which is the “midway” acclimatization stop on the single road to the summit of Mauna Kea. (At 9,600 feet, it’s higher up than a lot of observatories in the southwestern United States.) It’s also the place where astronomers sleep in darkened cabins between their observing nights and where the public can gaze through small telescopes on clear nights. Rangers reminded us of the dangers inherent in breathing air that has 40 percent less oxygen than “normal” and had us sign liability waivers for the various institutions that run the telescopes. Then it was back into the vans for the trip up the washboard dirt road, which became paved again as we got closer to the summit (so that less dirt is kicked up near the telescopes).
My group visited the Submillimeter Array, the Gemini North telescope, and the Keck telescopes.
R. Scott Fisher, an outreach scientist with the Gemini Observatory, and staff members of individual telescopes described what we were looking at. This photo shows the Gemini telescope with the dome slit open.
This one shows it while it was rotating on its mount as part of the daily pre-observing testing.
On the way to the twin Keck observatories, whose domes are connected by a single building, we saw more thrilling panoramas.
The Keck’s mirrors are made up of hexagonal mirror segments, so we got to see where the extra mirrors were stored:
We also saw where they are realuminized:
For me, this was a fitting complement to that January 1989 AAS press tour. Space was cramped inside the Keck dome, so it was harder to take photographs, but I did manage a shot of the computer-controlled actuator system that keeps the mirror segments aligned.
I also took pictures of other observatories that I didn’t get to visit up close, such as the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory.
You can see from this photo I took on the way down from the summit that we were way above the clouds!
At sunset, we went back to Hale Pohaku for dinner and talks by the directors of the Keck Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. We were back at the hotel 13 hours after departure.
I really appreciate the opportunity that I had to go on this journey of discovery. Mahalo (thank you) to all who helped make it possible!
2007-08 August, Astronomy, Astrophysics