Spring 2007 W. M. Keck Observatory 


Similar to a ball which slows down after it is thrown into the air, scientists expected that the expansion of the universe would gradually slow after the Big Bang that set it into motion. When astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, like a rocket that speeds on into space faster and faster after escaping the Earth’s atmosphere, they were completely surprised. This landmark discovery was based on research done at the Keck Observatory over the past decade; indeed, this research could not have been done without the immense light-gathering capabilities of the Keck telescopes, the largest optical telescopes in the world. Three astronomers were awarded the 2006 Shaw Prize for their work on the accelerating universe, and the “dark energy” which they believe is causing the acceleration they have observed. Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess shared the spotlight for this profound discovery, which has caused scientists to begin to rethink our basic understanding of gravity, in order to better account for “dark energy,” or the effect that accounts for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

Click here for a video clip of Saul Perlmutter discussing his groundbreaking research (requires Quicktime player). Learn more about the work of the Supernova Cosmology Project, led by Saul Perlmutter, and the High-Z Supernova Search Team, led by Brian Schmidt. Read "Studying the History and the Fate of the Universe."



Photo: Visitors to Keck Observatory telescopes enjoy the spectacular view from the summit of Mauna Kea, at the Observatory Open House on October 7, 2006. Photo by Richard Cohen.
"Astronomy does not belong to astronomers alone. The discoveries from giant telescopes in remote locations belong as much to the public, which has financed them, as they do to the scientific community. They belong, especially, to the young, whose exposure to science and its benefits is enhanced considerably by the dissemination of astronomical results." - Report of the National Science Foundation Division of Astronomical Sciences Senior Review Committee, October 2006.

In the U.S. the field of astronomy has evolved with little coordination among observatories around the country. Though it quickly became obvious that not every university campus was a suitable location for its own telescope, because of unfavorable weather patterns and light pollution, there was no overall plan for a national system of telescopes to serve U.S. astronomers. Similarly, federal funding for astronomy has not followed a coordinated plan, but rather focused on worthwhile projects on a case-by-case basis. As the costs of new instrumentation for studying far-distant galaxies, the life cycle of stars, and the fundamental processes which govern our universe have risen, the need to selectively allocate federal funding for new instrumentation for specific scientific priorities has become clear. There simply is not enough public money to fund new instrumentation for each independent observatory, and so federal funders are now taking a systems approach to allocating their resources. Future funding priorities include optimizing the science performed at each observatory, in order to create national “centers of excellence.” Another new priority for the NSF is to maximize the “public dividend” which results from engaging the larger community in discoveries at the frontiers of astronomy.

Read “Planning for the Next Generation of Funding” to learn how Keck Observatory has embraced its membership in the U.S. ground-based observing system and strategically positioned itself to take full advantage of federal funding priorities.



Photo: The summit crew works to correct damage caused by the October 15, 2006 earthquake. Photos by Sarah Anderson.
On February 20, 2007, Director Taft Armandroff delivered the annual “State of the Observatory” address to the staff of the Keck Observatory. Keck’s staff consists of about 126 full-time employees, of which two-thirds were hired from the state of Hawai’i. With an annual base operations budget of $13.5 million, with additional funding through grants, contracts, and private support, the Observatory is one of the island’s largest employers.

Armandroff took on the Directorship of the Observatory in July 2006, and this was his first ”State of the Observatory” address -- an annual tradition of summing up the Observatory’s achievements and ambitions in a presentation to the entire staff. An inclusionary theme pervaded the address, which lauded Keck Observatory’s unparalleled impact on science and scientists. “Absolutely everyone contributes to making Keck an innovative, efficient operation. This makes a difference in the science we do and in the impact we have on the community and the world,” asserted Armandroff.

Click here for a video clip of Taft Armandroff sharing his commitment to keep Keck Observatory the most scientifically productive observatory in the world. Video by Marc Boucher (requires Quicktime player).

Learn more about “Progress and Prospects at the W. M. Keck Observatory,” as highlighted by Director Taft Armandroff.



Photo: Galaxies NGC2207 and IC2163, photo by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy of Dr. Greg Wirth.
In January and February 2007, scientists and engineers from the Keck Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Facility, both headquartered in Waimea, visited approximately 1030 students in 34 classrooms at 9 schools in North and South Kohala. The goal of the Journey through the Universe Program is to build bridges between observatories and local schools. Through outreach programs like this, astronomers and engineers at Keck form long-term partnerships with science teachers in local schools, where they bring hands-on science experiences into classrooms and help to make science more approachable and interesting for the students. Ideally, some of these students are inspired to take an interest in science, to work with Keck staff on a project for the science fair, to become a student intern at the Observatory, and maybe someday to become a scientist or engineer who works on solving some of the world's pressing problems.

”As an astronomer who thinks about the universe every day, it's a bit shocking to realize that many people don’t have the faintest idea what's out there in space, how stupendously old, unfathomably big, and incredibly strange the universe is. It seems to me that every citizen of the universe ought to have some basic knowledge of this amazing thing that is responsible for generating literally every atom of their being. Our children ought to understand why the Moon has phases, why the Earth has seasons, and why we need to take good care of this planet --- because Earths are very few and far between.” — Dr. Gregory Wirth, astronomer at the Keck Observatory and volunteer teacher in the Journey through the Universe Program

Join Dr. Greg Wirth and Parker School middle and high school students for What Is Astronomy And Why Should I Care? (This lecture provides an excellent, accessible introduction to some difficult astronomical concepts, so enjoy!) Other participating scientists from Keck Observatory’s 2007 Journey program were Dr. Randy Campbell, Dr. Al Conrad, Dr. Mark Kassis, and Dr. Jim Lyke.

Keck Observatory encourages its employees to spend up to two percent of their time on community outreach projects, like the Journey project. The outreach efforts of Keck employees are one big way they express their gratitude to the many people in our Island community who support astronomy. Learn more about how Observatory employees are making a difference in our community.



Photo: Night falls at the Keck Observatory, above the clouds on Mauna Kea . Photo by Rick Peterson.
The summit of Mauna Kea soars 13,796 feet above sea level and offers near-perfect conditions for observing the universe. An inversion cloud layer well below the summit prevents moist ocean air and airborne pollutants from mixing with the dry, pure summit air. The summit is clear of gas, particulate, and urban light pollution and extremely dry - making it the world's premier site for ground-based astronomical observation.

Mauna Kea is home to the Keck telescopes, the largest optical/infrared telescopes in the world, as well as ten other working observatories. Seven of these observatories are utilized for optical and infrared astronomy, three are used for sub-millimeter wavelength astronomy, and one is used for radio astronomy. There are more major telescopes located on Mauna Kea than on any other single mountain peak on the planet. Visit the University of Hawai‘i's website for a complete list of Mauna Kea's observatories and their various website links.

The University of Hawai'i (UH) leases most of the land on the summit from the State of Hawai'i and is responsible for managing the summit area. This management area is called the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. UH has assembled representatives of many sectors of the community in order to develop appropriate protocols to manage the Science Reserve on the summit of Mauna Kea in a way that respects Hawaiian culture and the natural environment and promotes scientific research in a sensitive way. The Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) was established at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 2000 to serve as the stewardship entity for the Science Reserve.

According to OMKM Director, Bill Stormont, “The Mauna Kea Management Board and Kahu Ku Mauna Cultural Advisory Council serve in advisory capacities to OMKM and the University, providing an ongoing, previously non-existent, community link. Through these bodies, and through routine dialogue, the tenant observatories and the UH Institute for Astronomy have several means of receiving advice and input on, and approval for, work in progress or new development. The Mauna Kea Ranger Corps, established in 2001, is one of MANY concrete actions taken to ensure proper protection and oversight of resources on the summit.”

For more information on the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, visit www.MalamaMaunaKea.org or www.ifa.hawaii.edu/mko. Read the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan, adopted in June 2000.

Click here for a glimpse inside the Keck Observatory.