Winter 2006 W. M. Keck Observatory 

Click here for a video clip of Richard Ellis discussing his search for the earliest galaxies known to man. (Requires Quicktime player).

Read the full story, "Searching for Cosmic Dawn."

Photo: The Americas at night. More information available at NASA archives.
“Hawai‘i is home to two of the world’s premier astronomy observatory sites, Haleakala on Maui and Mauna Kea on Hawai‘i. Mauna Kea is considered the finest observing site in the world. One of the most critical needs for preserving the value of these sites is to reduce bright sources of light that penetrate the dark night sky. Recent nighttime images from the international space station revealed that some of the brightest sources of light on Maui and Hawai‘i are the airports and harbors on both islands. Astronomers on Mauna Kea are now detecting artificial light sources from urban areas that are diminishing the telescopes’ ability to do research.”
— excerpted from H.B. No. 1835 A Bill for An Act, House of Representatives, Twenty-third Legislature 2006, State of Hawai‘i.

The dark skies of Hawai‘i Island are stunning in their beauty and precious to the Island’s people, to native wildlife, and to the astronomy community on Mauna Kea. For several years members of the Hawai‘i Observatories have been advocating for legislation to control light pollution in the County and State of Hawai‘i. With the support of the Hawai‘i County Council, the business community, State and national parks, the observatories, and local residents — we can improve Hawai‘i’s outdoor lighting standards. This effort will require public education about the value of dark skies, funding to implement solutions, and strengthening of the County’s lighting ordinance. Preserving our dark skies is a win-win solution for everyone:
  • For astronomers by minimizing light pollution;
  • For the government by minimizing costs through the use of energy-efficient lighting;
  • For residents and the visitor industry by protecting a “star” quality — Hawai‘i’s spectacular night skies; and
  • For the environment by preserving a precious natural resource
Learn more at Read more about Light Pollution Solutions for Hawai’i Island.

Photo: Keck Observatory team members toast “first light” of the Next Generation Wavefront Controller of the Keck I Adaptive Optics System. Team members from right front and moving clockwise: Erik Johansson, Adaptive Optics Software Engineer; Marcos van Dam, Adaptive Optics Scientist; Paul Stomski, Adaptive Optics Software Engineer; Jason Chin, Senior Electronic Engineer; and Stephan Kellner, Adaptive Optics Post-Doctoral Scientist. Photo by Sarah Anderson.
“Congratulations to all involved on achieving first light on the Next Generation Wavefront Controller. Success came through outstanding preparation and lots of very hard work.” — Hilton Lewis, Deputy Director, Keck Observatory

October 6, 2006 marked another milestone in Keck Observatory’s legacy of innovation in astronomical instrumentation. “First light” refers to the first time a system successfully operates with star light. On October 6 a new system called the Next Generation Wavefront Controller (NGWFC) was incorporated into the existing adaptive optics (AO) system on the Keck I telescope. AO systems measure the atmospheric turbulence and put an approximate opposite optical effect on the system’s deformable mirror. Atmospheric turbulence distorts the incoming light from celestial objects, and AO helps correct these distortions and “flatten” the light waves to produce a sharper image.

The extent of the correction depends on two factors. There is a delay involved in measuring and correcting for atmospheric turbulence, so corrections are based on what the turbulence was at some time in the past. The larger the lag, the worse the correction. Second, there is “noise” (random errors) in the measurement of the turbulence, due to noise on the cameras and the fact that the stars used to make the turbulence measurements are usually faint. NGWFC is designed to address these shortcomings in the AO system by using a “quiet” camera, better estimation algorithms for turbulence, and by updating the deformable mirror at a faster rate — up from 660 to 2,400 corrections per second. NGWFC is one of many next generation instruments which are being pioneered at Keck Observatory to facilitate the next generation of discoveries about our cosmos.

How does AO work? View an excellent animation of the adaptive optics process, courtesy of Gemini Observatory. (Requires Quicktime player).

Learn more about NGWFC from NGWFC project scientist, Marcos van Dam.

Photo: Korina Leong (left) and Branning Sung (right) add extra memory to one of the network servers in the Keck Observatory Headquarters computer room. Photo by Sarah Anderson.
“My friends say, ‘Oh, you work at Keck. What a nerd!’ And I reply, ‘Thank you.’” — Korina Leong, Student Assistant to Keck Observatory Computer System Administration Group

Korina Leong started working at Keck when she was a freshman at Honoka‘a High School. “When I first started, I was so excited to be here,” says Korina. “Everyone is so friendly and helpful. Even though sometimes I have to interrupt their work to fix a computer, the staff invites me into their offices and they thank me for the work I am doing,” she explains. Korina, who is now a senior, has learned to effectively troubleshoot computers during her four years at Keck. Branning Sung, Korina’s immediate supervisor, is sure that Korina could now confidently fix most problems that might occur with her family’s home computer or home network. Branning, a Systems Administrator at Keck, also worked as a Student Assistant in the Computer Systems Administration Group while he attended Honoka‘a High School in the early 1990s. “The student employment program is an excellent way to get a foot in the door,” says Branning.

Students have been a part of the Keck Observatory’s operations since 1992. The Observatory currently employs Student Assistants in the Computer Systems Administration, Electronics, Facilities, Mechanical Engineering, and Public Information Groups. Students work after school from 3:00 to 5:00 pm and on school breaks from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. For more information on the Student Employment Program, please contact Renee Rooney at 808-885-7887 or at

Read more about the Student Employment Program at Keck Observatory.

Photo: The remote observing rooms experienced seismic consequences similar to the rest of Keck Headquarters with damage to ceiling tiles, glass, and lighting fixtures. Fortunately, the astronomers had already completed their observing runs for the night and were back in the sleeping quarters when the earthquake struck on Sunday morning. Photo by Sarah Anderson.
“The W. M. Keck Observatory is recovering from a 6.7-magnitude earthquake and a series of aftershocks that struck off the west coast of Hawai‘i Sunday morning at 7:07 a.m. HST. The earthquake was the largest to hit Hawai‘i in 20 years and caused power and communication failures across the state. There were no injuries at W. M. Keck Observatory and all personnel are safe.” — Laura K. Kinoshita, Public Information Officer, Keck Observatory

This announcement was sent out to the Keck ‘ohana (family) here on the Island, across the U.S. Mainland, and around the world. What at first appeared to be minor damage — later proved to be much more significant. The precision at which the Keck Observatory telescopes operate is difficult to maintain, on a good day. The telescope control systems are massive, and each telescope structure weighs nearly 300 tons. Yet the telescopes are controlled at nanometer-level accuracy. As a result of the October 15 earthquake, the Observatory suffered damage to its drive, encoder, and precision reference systems.

Observatory employees have been working 24/7 to return these systems to a normal operating state. Repairs are complex and difficult, especially at an altitude of 14,000 feet. “There has been an amazing amount of dedication and resourcefulness by staff at the summit and at Headquarters, and I am deeply impressed,” said Observatory Director Taft Armandroff. Science, it would seem, is more important than sleep.

How does an organization maintain such intense dedication, teamwork, and excellence? By fulfilling its mission to inspire the imaginations of all — including its own employees. Director of Advancement, Debbie Goodwin, likens the work of the Observatory to the contemplation of the eternal. Read “My Feet No Longer Touch the Earth” to learn more about the Observatory’s accomplishments in the year that is passing.