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.
|Photo: Dr. Shri Kulkarni
lecturing at Caltech, courtesy of Dr. Kulkarni.
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
Read more about Kulkarni, gamma-ray
bursts, and his big plans for the future.
“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
|Photo: Judy Cohen,
MAGIQ project scientist. On Judy’s screen is an image
of the Leo I dwarf galaxy. Photo by Judith Mack.
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.
“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
|Photo: Milky Way seen from the summit of
Mauna Kea. Copyright 2006 Richard Wainscoat.
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
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
"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.
|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.
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.
“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 I Telescope and dome under
construction. Photo by G. Smith.
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: 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.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
|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.
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
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.