W.M. KECK OBSERVATORY
C E L E B R AT I N G 2 0 Y E A R S O F E X P L O R I N G T H E U N I V E R S E
It has long been known that the universe is ex-panding, and for many years the question was,Would it end with a whimper or a bang?That is, would the universe continue expandingendlessly? Or would the gravity of its ingredientsultimately pull it back on itself into a so-called BigCrunch, perhaps generating another Big Bang?But the revelation that the expansion is acceler-ating toppled that proposition, introducing thestudy of the universe’s dark driving forces.That’s part of the mission on Mauna Kea.Just as an army needs infantry, artillery, cavalryand engineers, astronomers marshal a variety offorces in their field.Visible light tells only a fraction of the celestialstory, so Mauna Kea’s telescopes also observe ininfrared and submillimeter wavelengths (betweeninfrared and radio waves). Specialized instru-ments can further parse the picture.The studies range from our neighboring planetsand their moons; asteroids — including those thatmight someday hit Earth; so-called Kuiper Belt ob-jects like the former planet Pluto; cold, dark ob-jects called brown dwarfs that are neither planetnor star; interstellar gas and dust; the birth ofstars; massive and Earth-like planets aroundother stars; black holes; material between galax-ies; other galaxies and galactic clusters; and ob-jects near the dawn of time, some13 billion years ago.
HAWAII’S EYESON THE UNIVERSE
S THOUGH presenting an early Christmas gift, a teamof astronomers using the Keck Observatory an-nounced in mid-December that it had found the clos-est thing yet to an Earth around another star.Tau Ceti, a sunlike star only 12 light-years away, may havefive planets, but one of them is in the so-called “Goldilockszone.” This is a not-too-hot, not-too-cold niche where any waterwould be liquid.Where life as we know it could exist.Finding an Earth-like planet around another star is the “holygrail” of astronomy, says GüntherHasinger, director of the Insti-tute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.“Extrasolar planets is really one of the hot topics nowadays,and Keck has played a crucial role in discovering the first extra-solar planets,” Hasinger said in a recent interview at his officein Manoa. “For a very few cases we are actually able to see theplanet directly with the Keck telescope. You need very, veryspecial conditions, but sometimes you are lucky and you candirectly image a planet.“The holy grail is to find an Earth-like planet where we could,in principle, then fly to and have a second place to live if we de-stroy our own planet.”The search for exoplanets — and ultimately a spectral analy-sis of their atmospheres for clues to life — is one of a host ofgroundbreaking topics under discussion this week as the KeckObservatory celebrates its 20th anniversary. The Keck, whichbegan science operations on March 16, 1993, has played a keyrole in many areas of astronomy, from our planetary neighborsto the far reaches of the cosmos and everything in between.As part of the anniversary observance, scientists will meetThursday and Friday at the Fairmont Orchid hotelin SouthKohala to mark Keck’s milestones.The two dozen speakers include three who will describeKeck’s adaptive optics, an innovative technique that uses alaser guide star to counter the blur of the atmosphere.Mike Brown of Caltech, known as the “planet killer” for hisobservations that led to the demotion of Pluto, will talk aboutKeck’s views of the outer solar system.Michael Liu of UH-Manoa will introduce the “cool neighbors”— brown dwarfs. And Andrea Ghez of UCLA will detail thedizzying carousel of stars around the black hole at the center ofthe Milky Way.As if to add an exclamation point on the events, a comet willappear in the evening sky. The best viewing may be tonight,when Comet Pan-STARRS appears below a thin crescent moon.SINCE THE FIRST EXOPLANETwas detected in 1995aroundthe star 51 Pegasi, 51 light-years away, the confirmed list hasgrown to more than 700, with thousands more candidates.Most cannot be seen directly, so astronomers watch the hoststar wobble from the gravitation interaction. The movementcan be detected by the Doppler effect, the same phenomenonthat accounts for the different tones of a train whistle as thetrain swiftly approaches, then speeds away.“When the planet is circling the star, the star actually makesa little counteraction because in reality both are circling arounda common center of mass, which is inside the star,” Hasingersaid. “The star is actually moving as fast as the fastest runnerson Earth, about 10 meters per second. And for stellar measuresthis is really small, so you have to have very accurate spectro-graphs and you see this, the spectral light shifting back andforth in the spectrum.”The other technique to detecting exoplanets is a transit, likethe transit of Venusacross the face ofthe sun lastJune.“When weare looking at some other planetary system and one of theplanets is moving in front of its star, we don’t see that, but wesee it as a little dip in the light curve,” Hasinger said.Using that approach, a team of astronomers from Californiaand Hawaii estimated in January that 17 percent of sunlikestars have planets up to twice the diameter of Earth in close or-bits. The scientists used NASA’s Kepler space tele-scope to repeatedly image 150,000 stars in asmall region of the sky, looking for a dip inbrightness. The stars then were analyzed fur-ther with the Keck, fitted with a high-resolutionspectrograph, which turns a light wave into afrequency spectrum, similar to a rainbow.THE GALAXY’S central black hole isanother area where Keck has playeda crucial role, Hasinger said.“When you look at the galaxywith the naked eye, you see thisScientists using Keck have foundthe strongest evidence yet thatthe salty ocean under the icy ex-terior of Jupiter’s moon Europainteracts with the surface. Thatmakes it a chemical-rich environ-ment that can be analyzed bystudying the surface.
KECK’S GRAND VIEWOF SPACE
The W.M. Keck Observatory is located at the Mauna Kea summit, whichastronomers regard as the premier location for ground-based astronomical research. Keck sits on a site 13,796 feet above sea level, providing a view that is largely unobstructed by water vapor.The dark skies with undisturbed overhead airstream provide spectacular celestial images.
The W.M. Keck Observatory has been at the center of many astronomical discoveries,including:
About 300tons18 inches of dirt andgravel insulate the rooffrom the elements.The steel and aluminum domeswere made in Canada, shipped inpieces and reassembled on thesummit. The telescopes’ structureswere made in Spain.The telescopes rotate on a thinsheet of pressured, refrigeratedoil. It only takes a few 0.5-horse-power motors to turn the massive700-ton dome.
Laser guide stars
Astronomers developed laser guidestars as part of the adaptive opticssystem, which compensates foratmospheric turbulence to createclearer images. An artificial star, createdby a laser beam, acts as a calibrationsource near an object astronomerswant to observe.Keck’s scopeswere the first to be outfittedwith adaptive optics, in 1999and 2000. Lasers wereinstalled in 2004. Theentire adaptive opticssystem is now beingupgraded at a cost of$50 million, whichincludes a new$4 million laser.The building has no living quarters for workers. It is self-sufficient for keepingthe telescopes running. Giant air conditioners run constantly during the day,keeping the dome temperature near freezing to reduce the chance of deforma-tion of the telescopes’ steel and mirrors due to fluctuating temperatures. Thisprevents air turbulence as the telescope structures and mirrors cool to night-time temperatures. Giant exhaust fans also suck air through the domes whenthey are open. This prevents any heat sources, including human bodies, fromcreating air turbulence that might disrupt viewing.
Lower shutter Upper shutter
Astronomers use the telescopes inshifts of one-half to five nights. Timeallocation committees pre-approveall observing. Assistants operate thetelescopes at the summit whileastronomers gather data via remoteobserving from observatoryheadquarters in Waimea.
First science observations in 1993