An Interview with the Keck Observatory Director
Which observatories are collaborating on this project?
OHANA is a collaborative effort on Mauna Kea: Keck, Subaru,
Gemini, CFHT, IRTF, and UKIRT observatories are all participating.
The observatory Directors attend periodic meetings to follow
the progress of OHANA. The most recent meeting was on May 10,
2006. The OHANA collaboration has been ongoing for five years
-- preparing the technology required to combine the first two
pairs of telescopes. L'Observatoire de Paris is spearheading
the OHANA technology.
What kinds of research will this linking make possible
that wasn't possible previously?
The incentive to collaborate is the unprecedented detail with
which a few bright sources in the universe can be observed.
Linking telescopes through the OHANA Project makes it possible
to study the nucleus of a distant galaxy close in to its central
black hole and to image solar systems in the process of formation.
These phenomena cannot be adequately studied in any other way,
so these are likely areas of initial OHANA research.
When did the first fiber link between two observatories
take place? Which observatories participated?
The two Keck telescopes were successfully linked by fiber optics
in June 2005. This was the first time two large optical/infrared
telescopes had ever been fiber-linked in this way, and the linkage
represents a major step forward. The next step is to attempt
to link Canada-France-Hawai'i and Gemini. This is anticipated
to occur in 2008. Shortly thereafter, the coupling of Keck and
Subaru will be attempted. Since the Kecks were the first to
be coupled, the Keck Director spearheaded the first phase of
OHANA. That leadership now passes to the Gemini and CFHT Directors
as they attempt to combine those two telescopes in the years
|Photo: Keck I and Keck II telescopes (center),
framed by Japan's Subaru telescope on the left and NASA's
infrared telescope facility on the right. Photo courtesy
of Val Kim.
How will the new fiber-linked observatories work?
It is still too early to tell how such a huge collaboration
involving telescopes operated by different nations will work
in practice. Most likely, the Directors of each of the observatories,
who all have a small amount of discretionary time they can assign
to special projects, would agree to assign a night or two of
their time to some project of interest to the world astronomy
community. Something like this happened on a small scale on
the night of July 3, 2005 -- "Deep Impact" night, when a NASA
probe crashed into a comet. The Keck, Subaru, and Gemini Directors
all collaborated to observe this event in complementary ways
at their respective observatories, and those data were immediately
made available to the world's astronomers.
The downside is that interferometry on this scale is very difficult,
uncertain, and expensive, and it could take a decade to fully
connect the complete OHANA array. Another issue is the daunting
logistics of scheduling the world's largest telescopes to work
in concert on the same nights. Each telescope is on a different
scheduling cycle and serves entirely different constituencies.
Each of the telescopes is oversubscribed by its community --
by at least a factor of three. Coupling six Mauna Kea telescopes
interferometrically is likely to be an extremely rare event
- one which occurs only once or twice every few years.
Is OHANA a new thing or have you folks been collaborating
for many years?
Other types of collaborations between observatories on Mauna
Kea have been increasing in recent years. Gemini and Keck have
had a program of time exchange between their observatories for
the last several years, and Gemini and Subaru are exploring
a very ambitious program to build WFMOS,
a Gemini-funded instrument to be installed on Subaru within
the next decade.
The Directors are also exploring ways to collaborate on the
still-young technology of adaptive optics, which promises to
revolutionize ground-based observatories. (Adaptive optics is
a technology that removes the image blurring caused by the earth's
unstable atmosphere. Such blurring has been considered a fundamental
limitation for all earth-based telescopes until very recently
when technology has been developed to all but eliminate it in
certain cases.) All the major Mauna Kea Observatories have adaptive
optics teams, many of which are struggling with the same and
varied challenges to bring this technology into regular operation
on the telescopes. Whether such a collaboration ends up being
a loose collaborative or a more formal "Adaptive Optics Hawai'i
Center" is still under discussion.
How can the public help move this project along or support
the efforts to collaborate?
All of these projects are expensive, and often beyond the resource
capabilities of the observatories. Private donations are essential
for the scientific health and vitality not only of the Keck
Observatory, but of the United States itself, if we are to retain
the world leadership in science and technology that we have
enjoyed for over a century.
Read a January 13, 2006 press release
about the OHANA Project.
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