Fall 2007 W. M. Keck Observatory 

Image: The discovery of Dysnomia, the moon of Eris, from the W. M. Keck Observatory. Eris appears in the center, while the moon is the small dot at the three o'clock position. Credit: Mike Brown, W. M. Keck Observatory.
Astronomer Mike Brown has spent the past ten years systematically surveying the sky over the Northern Hemisphere, searching for large objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of our solar system past Neptune. Brown has been incredibly successful in finding such objects, including Eris, Santa (a football-shaped object with two moons), and Sedna, an object which inhabits the region beyond the Kuiper Belt. Brown’s discovery of Eris, which has 27 percent more mass than Pluto, sparked a year-long debate which ultimately resulted in a fundamental realignment of our conventional picture of the solar system. If Pluto, which is smaller than Eris, was a planet, then Eris must be a planet too. Or, conversely, if Eris was not a planet, than Pluto was not a planet either.

Such was the final determination by the International Astronomical Union, whose General Assembly met in Prague in late 2006 to issue a formal definition of what is and what is not a planet. Neither Eris nor Pluto met all the criteria for planetary status, since they had not “cleared the neighborhood” around their orbits of other smaller bodies. Pluto was officially “plutoed,” or demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet, along with Eris and several other Kuiper Belt objects. The verb “plutoed” had entered our vocabulary, roughly defined as “suddenly shot down to size.”

As the ninth planet gradually disappears from solar system models and textbooks in classrooms across the country, we are reminded of the reasons why we humans explore and engage in the process of scientific discovery. So that we can better understand the nature of our world, old models are cast aside in the face of new data which no longer support them. Brown’s research made possible a new understanding of the heavenly bodies which inhabit our cosmic neighborhood. As a natural part of this process, the nine-planet model of the solar system that we grew up with was discarded in favor of a new alignment. Learn more about The New Solar System.

Image: A small portion of a relatively wide-angle image obtained on April 7, 1997 (top right), and again on April 28, 1997 (top left). Upon digital subtraction of the April 7th image from the April 28th image, a supernova candidate is visible (bottom right). A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) image obtained on May 12, 1997 (bottom left) shows supernova “SN 1997cj” clearly. Image by Brian P. Schmidt and the High-z Supernova Search Team.
“If Newton were restricted, in working through the theory of gravitation, to apples and forbidden to look at the motion of the Moon or the Earth, it is clear he would not have made much progress. It is precisely being able to look at the effects down here, look at the effects up there, comparing the two, which permits, encourages, the development of a broad and general theory.”
  — Carl Sagan, from The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, Penguin Press 2006

For the past fifteen years, scientists have been using LRIS, the Low-Resolution Imaging Spectrometer, on the Keck I Telescope to study extremely distant exploding stars, or supernovae. By measuring these objects with the precision and power of the Keck Telescope and instrumentation, researchers can determine their distance, how far back in time we are seeing them, and how much the universe has expanded while their light was traveling toward us. Together, these measurements provided an unexpected discovery about the history of the universe.

“What we found has rocked the world of astronomy and physics,” says Alex Filippenko, UC Berkeley Astronomy professor and High-z Supernova Search Team member. “The expansion of the universe is speeding up with time, rather than slowing down as expected due to normal, attractive gravity. It's like you throw this apple up, and it zooms away from you faster and faster, instead of slowing down. Over the largest scales, the universe appears to be dominated by mysterious, repulsive ‘dark energy,’ not by attractive gravity,” marvels Filippenko. At the University of Cambridge on September 7, Filippenko was acknowledged for his contributions as a member of both of the two teams receiving the prestigious 2007 Guber cosmology prize for this “crazy result.”

To understand the physical nature of dark energy, scientists need to rethink the current “laws” of physics and come up with a new, unified theory of forces. The quest for a unified theory is widely considered to be the one of the greatest unsolved problems of our time. Astronomers are using LRIS to collect detailed measurements of supernovae in order to help them understand the properties of dark energy. Long-awaited upgrades to the LRIS instrument at Keck Observatory will increase the efficiency of this instrument fivefold and increase its imaging field of view by 25%. Using a more powerful LRIS instrument, scientists will continue to probe the far reaches of the universe in their search to understand the nature of the forces which govern our world. Read “Breathing New Life into a Discovery Machine” to learn more.

Click here to view a video clip of Alex Filippenko discussing the significance of the proposed upgrades to LRIS. Video by Jim Richards, producer/director for Educational Technology Services at UC Berkeley.

Image: Illustration of the Keck I Telescope by Kirk Caldwell for a May 24, 1987 Los Angeles Times Magazine article, “Building the World’s Largest Telescope: Mr. Keck’s Bequest.”
It is difficult to imagine the pre-CNN, pre-Internet communication network which existed in January 1985, when then-President Reagan sent this telegram to administrators at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). We were a nation on the brink of globalization, leading the world with unprecedented technological innovation. The optimism that surrounded the world’s largest philanthropic gift for a scientific project, the $70 million grant by the W. M. Keck Foundation to Caltech to construct the world’s largest telescope, was palpable. The ten-meter Keck I Telescope was to be four times the size of the then-largest telescope, the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory.

Photo: Presidential telegram sent to Caltech in January, 1985, courtesy of Keck Observatory archives.
Six years later, the Keck Foundation followed up with another gift of roughly $59 million dollars to construct the Keck II Telescope adjacent to Keck I at the summit of Mauna Kea. The twin Keck telescopes have exceeded all expectations and fulfilled the grand vision of the Keck Foundation. The answers to universal questions about the origin and fate of the universe, and about the existence of life and of habitable worlds beyond Earth, are now within our grasp.

Read more about the Keck Foundation grant, a well-calculated risk which kick started a new era of scientific discovery on this planet.

Image: Measured from the ocean floor, Mauna Kea is more than a half mile higher than Mount Everest, at an altitude of 31,824 feet. Image copyright NGDC/GLCF/DLR, from the book Mountains from Space, featuring digital images of the world’s highest peaks compiled from a variety of sources, including satellites and airborne cameras.
“We will never catch today’s global economic waves by developing land. Instead we need to begin focusing on human development — the kind of development that recognizes our future economic success depends upon innovation and new ideas, of which there is an unlimited supply.” - Governor Linda Lingle, 2006 Inaugural Address, December 4, 2006

Land has been the basis of wealth in Hawai`i both historically and in the present. Hawai`i’s land prices are among the highest in the nation, but, like many of the resources that fuel our modern economy, the amount of developable land is a limited commodity. As home prices skyrocketed out of reach of most wage earners in our State during the past five years, community leaders realized the need to diversify our land-based economy and generate wealth via new avenues. Hawai`i’s “innovation sector” relies on new ideas to change the ways we create energy, supply our food, manage our natural resources, and do business. Innovation, or creating new ways to accomplish tasks, is the key to transforming Hawai`i’s economy.

To stimulate the growth of the State’s high-technology economy, Governor Lingle is seeking advice from experts. Lingle’s recently established Hawai`i Innovation Council is a 15-member advisory body which will review strategies and make recommendations to help the State increase its innovation “capacity” and better support technology research, development, and product creation. Dr. Taft Armandroff, Director of Keck Observatory, has been selected to sit on this Council and share his considerable expertise in the field of scientific innovation with the Governor and her advisors.

“Hawai`i’s astronomical research community is recognized as the premier on the planet, and Keck Observatory is the leader of that community. As the Director of W. M. Keck Observatory, I am a passionate user and advocate of innovation’s key drivers: science, mathematics, engineering, and creativity.” — Taft Armandroff

Learn more about Hawai`i: The Learning Island.

“Time on the world’s biggest telescope is heavily, heavily prized. I would rather be here on this telescope than anything in the world. I don’t think that there’s anything that anyone could suggest to me that would make me not want to be here. Last month I actually had an invitation to the White House which I turned down because we had Keck time. This is just the most precious instrument on the world today.” — Dr. Paul Butler, astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C., Department of Terrestrial Magnetism

Click here to view a video clip of Paul Butler, excerpted from the PBS documentary “What’s Up in the Universe?”.

Photo: “What’s Up?” logo superimposed on an image of an exploded star. Visit www.whatsupintheuniverse.org for film details.
“What’s Up in the Universe?” is a fast-paced, 60-minute documentary that traces the origins of our planet and of life on our planet, and of astronomers’ epic search to find life on other planets within our universe. “What's Up?” looks at mankind’s urge to explore through the experiences of a variety of discoverers, beginning with voyages by Polynesian navigator Nainoa Thompson and including research conducted by some of the world’s leading scientists at observatories in Hawai`i. The film’s executive producer is Dr. R. Brent Tully, an astronomer on the faculty at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawai`i. The film’s producer and director is Susan Friedman, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is currently a faculty member at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Keck Observatory hosted a premiere screening of the documentary on Tuesday, July 10, at Keck Headquarters in Waimea, Hawai`i. “The film is fantastic!” says Debbie Goodwin of Keck Observatory’s Advancement Office. The film received major funding from the National Science Foundation and is being distributed nationally to public television stations throughout the U. S. Click here to purchase a copy of What’s Up in the Universe? Read an interview with filmmakers Susan Friedman and Brent Tully.