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Haleakala becomes hot spot for astronomy

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Haleakala becomes hot spot for astronomy

Two solar observatories could join others on a summit considered on par with Mauna Kea

On the summit of Haleakala are LURE (to be replaced by Pan-STARRS 1), left, MAGNUM, AEOS, and other Air Force telescopes. In the foreground are TV transmitter antennas and antenna for Hawaii Public Radio.


Haleakala no longer is taking a back seat to Mauna Kea in astronomy. It has a leading role in some bold new solar research ventures.

"On Haleakala, there's a lot more development, more new scientific programs going up ... than on Mauna Kea," said Jeff Kuhn, associate director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy's Maui Division.

The 10,000-mile-high Maui summit is one of the top candidates for a $160 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope -- "the biggest jump in solar observing capabilities from the ground since Galileo," Kuhn said.

It's also under study with Mauna Kea to determine which would be the best for Pan-STARRS, an estimated $50 million array of four telescopes proposed to hunt for asteroids and other Earth-threatening objects.

UH astronomers will build the first telescope on Haleakala within a few months to test the system.

In other activities, Kuhn and his colleagues recently pioneered with unique instruments to map the magnetic field in the sun's outer atmosphere for the first time.

They used a $4 million, 1/5-meter (20-inch) telescope called SOLARC (Scatter-free Observatory for Limb Active Regions and Coronae). Kuhn built it as a prototype for the large national solar telescope, using a spectrograph developed by Haosheng Lin, Haleakala resident manager.

Lin recently received nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation for further development of infrared instrumentation for solar physics.

Kuhn said people tend to think there is a vacuum between Earth and the sun, but there is space weather driven by activities on the sun and magnetic fields. Understanding the fields is critical to understanding the connection between the sun and Earth, he said.

Having shown that the SOLARC instruments can be used to see invisible magnetic fields in the corona, he said, "We now know that the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope will be able to do this all the way from the surface of the sun outwards," and in much finer detail.

The proposed solar telescope will be similar to SOLARC in design but almost 10 times larger in diameter, collecting almost 100 times as much light, he said. It will be the largest solar telescope ever built with a primary mirror of 4 meters or 13 feet.

One of three co-investigators for the solar telescope, Kuhn is optimistic the data will prove Haleakala is the best of three potential sites. Others are the Canary Islands near Spain and the Big Bear Solar Observatory in California.

"It depends how the telescope is built, but for some configurations, the seeing data at Haleakala is really superb," Kuhn said. "We should be pleased in about six months (when the selection is made)."

If the Maui summit is chosen, Kuhn said, "We feel the UH and its connection with the best site in the world makes a very compelling case for the National Solar Observatory (with facilities in Arizona and New Mexico) to move to Hawaii with families and scientists."

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, Institute for Astronomy director and new chairman of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy board of directors, said Haleakala has "enormous scientific potential."

Education and outreach also are priorities "to make science interesting for new generations," he said.

Kuhn said the institute recently signed a memo of understanding with the Air Force for a partnership, and the astronomers are excited about seeing what their new instruments can do for defense-related problems.

A new long-range development plan for the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory site is available for public comment. Kuhn said it lays out research directions for the summit and tries to be sensitive to Hawaiian issues. Cultural consultants will be engaged for new construction, which will be confined to the 18-acre science reserve, he said.

Unlike Mauna Kea, where new projects have been controversial, he said Haleakala "is a tiny plot of land ... and it is historically devoted to long-term projects (such as the advanced solar telescope) that are particularly relevant to Earth and society."

Haleakala is as good as Mauna Kea in many characteristics, Kuhn said, regarding a potential site for the Pan-STARRS system. "But it may not be as good as often. We have incursions from clouds more often than Mauna Kea, which is a little higher."

Broadcast antennas on Haleakala also are a big problem, he said.

"The interference is something we've tried to live with," he said, "but as we get more sensitive detectors, they will swamp the signals we get from faint optical sources."

He said the broadcasters and other concerned groups haven't agreed on alternative sites.

"What isn't an option is to leave the antenna broadcasters where they are now because, in some cases, the power radiated is just unsafe," Kuhn said.

Problems have been minimized because there haven't been a lot of people or activities on the summit but that is fast changing, he said.

"We have never seen our observing capabilities grow like they have," Kuhn said. "The reason ... is there are a bunch of problems we are stuck on with the sun. We realize that magnetic fields on the sun control everything, but they're invisible in the outer layers of the sun."

The Institute for Astronomy hopes to have a new headquarters in Kula next year for the growing astronomy community. An Advance Technology Center is in the final design phase, Kuhn said.

Modern laboratory space and facilities will make the UH institute technically competitive for a wide range of opportunities with existing and new partners, Kuhn said.

"The facility will have strong emphasis on bringing optical and measurement technologies to the islands that don't exist elsewhere. There is a lot of potential for some new science, a lot of excitement now that we're opening new windows for seeing the sun."

Haleakala Observatories

>> The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy's Mees Solar Observatory, which produces magnetic field data from the sun's disk with state-of-the-art instruments developed by Donald Mickey, principal UH space environment scientist.

>> The Air Force's Advanced Electro-Optical System telescope for deep-space tracking, diagnostics and remote sensing on man-made systems.

>> Japan's 2-meter (80-inch) MAGNUM Telescope, a specialized instrument to measure the size of the universe with long-term observations.

>> The 2-meter Faulkes Telescope, largest in the world devoted to education of students and teachers in Hawaii and the United Kingdom. This is a joint effort of the IFA and Dill Faulkes Educational Trust in Great Britain.

>> The LURE Observatory, developed by the IFA under contract with NASA for satellite laser ranging, has been closed. The first Pan-STARRS telescope to search for asteroids will go into that site.

>> A SOLARC (Scatter-free Observatory for Limb Active Regions and Coronae), 20-inch telescope and spectrograph -- unique instruments developed by UH astronomers to observe the sun's activities and corona.


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