Summer 2007 W. M. Keck Observatory 

Photo: Dr. Shri Kulkarni lecturing at Caltech, courtesy of Dr. Kulkarni.
Shri Kulkarni is a risk taker. Every couple of years he adjusts his focus in the heavens to hone in on a new mystery. At the age of 50, Kulkarni has already gone through five incarnations in his field. He started off studying the intergalactic medium (thin gas between galaxies), then pulsars, supernovae, brown dwarfs, gamma-ray bursts, and now he has discovered a new kind of cosmic explosion which occurs when two stars merge, called a Luminous Red Nova. Kulkarni has the distinction of having 50 scientific papers published in the prestigious journal Nature prior to his 50th birthday last October. He jokingly refers to this achievement as the “50b50” project, a boyish game that he devised to celebrate an amazingly prolific and profoundly influential career. Among his many accomplishments, Kulkarni is co-discoverer of the first millisecond pulsar and of the first brown dwarf — failed stars that are now known to be the most common celestial objects in the universe. Kulkarni is arguably the world’s leading expert on gamma -ray bursts, super luminous beams of energy emitted by exploding stars located millions of light years away.

Kulkarni attributes his success to his desire to learn something new each day. While this habit may not immediately lead to groundbreaking discoveries, it does keep him jumping off the “bandwagon” and striking out boldly in new directions. Having a solid background in several disciplines makes it easier for Kulkarni to see difficult problems in a new light. Kulkarni shares his thoughts on his success at the frontiers of astronomical discovery in this short video clip (requires Flash player).

Read more about Kulkarni, gamma-ray bursts, and his big plans for the future.

Photo: Judy Cohen, MAGIQ project scientist. On Judy’s screen is an image of the Leo I dwarf galaxy. Photo by Judith Mack.
“Attention to observational efficiency is a crucial goal for the Keck Observatory. MAGIQ potentially affects every observation on every night. Even a small improvement in setup time on each night, saving ten minutes per night, will result in six more nights per year for observers to use and to produce great science from Keck.” — Dr. Judy Cohen, Caltech astronomer and MAGIQ project scientist.

Finding the right place in the sky (a process astronomers call “acquisition”) to make an observation can be difficult. At Keck Observatory, many of the objects astronomers wish to observe are extremely faint and often require exposures of an hour or more to register a useful image. These exposures require a process known as “guiding,” or constantly moving the telescope to keep the field of interest precisely aligned with the telescope, as the telescope systems compensate for the earth’s rotation. The current guiding system at Keck was designed more than 15 years ago, and it is behind the curve of what is technically feasible today.

Keck Observatory has recently embarked on a project to implement a major upgrade to the observatory’s guiding system. This new system is called MAGIQ, the Multi-function Acquisition, Guiding and Image Quality monitoring system. Read more about MAGIQ, the new acquisition and guiding system at the observatory, by instrument program manager Sean Adkins.

Photo: Milky Way seen from the summit of Mauna Kea. Copyright 2006 Richard Wainscoat.
“An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right of humankind equivalent to all other environmental, social, and cultural rights, due to its impact on the development of all peoples and on the conservation of biodiversity.” - Principle Number 1 of the Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight, adopted at the Starlight 2007 Conference in La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain.

When the County of Hawai‘i lighting ordinance was last updated in 1989, the largest telescope on Mauna Kea was 3.8 meters in diameter. Since then, the size of the telescopes at the summit has grown to include the two 10-meter Keck telescopes. According to Richard Wainscoat, an astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy, advances in light gathering capabilities at Mauna Kea have increased by a factor of at least 30 times from 1989 to 2007. But measures to control ambient light pollution in the surrounding community and around the island remain essentially unchanged, in spite of dramatic increases in development and population.

For the past several years, members of the astronomical community have been working to educate the public and our policy makers about the value of Hawai‘i’s dark skies to the observatories, to visitors, to residents, and to the native species which inhabit our forests and coastal waters. These efforts are beginning to pay off. Read more about these lighting success stories.

Photo: Interns in the 2004 Akamai Internship Program at the summit of Mauna Kea. Ben Berkey, now an employee at Keck Observatory, is second from the right. Photo by Sarah Anderson.
"Our educational programs are aimed to increase interest and participation in science and engineering careers, and to help build a research community that fosters diversity. Though the Akamai Internships are relatively new, they have already been successful in both areas. The young people who've participated are enthusiastic and extremely motivated. And they've found their experiences working at Keck and the other Mauna Kea observatories to be rewarding, too. A summer experience like this, short as it seems, can really make a positive impact on a student's goals and career path." - Dr. Claire Max, UC astronomer and Director of the Center for Adaptive Optics.

The Hawai‘i Island Akamai Internship Program supports Keck Observatory’s strategic goal to foster the next generation of technicians, engineers, and scientists. The Akamai Program is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Since its inception in 2004, the Hawai‘i Island Akamai program has graduated 28 students, and 11 new interns are poised to participate in this project-based learning program in summer 2007.

To learn more about value of the Akamai Program from the perspective of the participants, we interviewed three alumni: Ben Berkey, 2004 cohort; David Luis, 2005 cohort; and James Ah Heong, 2006 cohort. All three students were raised in Hawai‘i and all three are now working in their chosen scientific or engineering fields. Hear more from our interns, in their own words.

Photo: Keck I Telescope and dome under construction. Photo by G. Smith.
“In late 1990 we assembled the first 9 segments into the Keck I telescope, got the mirror control system working, and pointed the telescope at the sky for the first time. With this initial configuration we were able to get high-quality images of distant galaxies. We compared one of our images to a picture taken by the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar and the images were essentially equal. That was the day that I knew that we would succeed in building the world's greatest optical telescope. This initial test of the telescope also convinced the Keck Foundation that our technology worked and was the basis for the Foundation approval of funding for the second Keck telescope.” — Jerry Smith, project manager for W. M. Keck Observatory

Photo: Keck first light image. This picture was taken of a normal spiral galaxy NG1232 with a partially assembled mirror, consisting of only 9 of the total 36 segments. Photo by Keck Observatory.
In the late 1970s, astronomers at the University of California (UC) conceived of building a new telescope which would be much larger than the biggest telescope at the time, the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar. UC astronomers organized an internal competition to consider several different and novel technical approaches for constructing such a large telescope. At the end of that process they selected the concept of a segmented mirror telescope, as proposed by scientist Jerry Nelson at the UC Lawrence Berkeley Lab. During this early planning period Mauna Kea was selected as the preferred site for the telescope. This was the beginning of the story of the Keck Observatory. Read the full story of the early years, as told by the Keck Observatory’s project manager, Jerry Smith.

Photo: As daylight fades on the summit of Mauna Kea, the twin Keck Telescopes (center), the neighboring Subaru Telescope (left), and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (right) are being prepared for another night of discovery on the astronomical frontier. Photo by David Speltz.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
- Carl Sagan

Throughout history, private philanthropy has been instrumental in driving advances in the study of astronomy. Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei and the world’s first telescope received critical funding and endorsement from Christina and Ferdinand Medici, a wealthy family in Florence, Italy. Keck Observatory’s predecessor in U.S. ground-based astronomy, Mount Palomar’s Hale telescope, was financed through the generosity of The Rockefeller Foundation. And the construction of the revolutionary twin Keck telescopes was funded almost entirely by the W. M. Keck Foundation. Read The Early Years for the full story of the birth of the Keck Observatory, from concept to completion.

Keck Observatory’s strategic plan outlines an ambitious program of new technology projects. To bring this program to full fruition will require funds beyond the observatory’s existing revenue stream. A total of 66 donors have stepped forward in the past two years to provide support for the observatory’s instrumentation projects and educational programs. These donors include individuals, foundations, and corporations, all of whom have been inspired by Keck’s work at the astronomical frontier. Read more about our donors and the projects they support.