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UH Hilo Joins Hunt for Killer Asteroids
Astrophysicists at the University of Hawaii at Hilo have become partners in the Pan-STARRS project, an observatory to search the sky for dangerous asteroids and other unexpected celestial events.
The prototype telescope, with a single 70-inch-diameter mirror, is currently under construction on Haleakala and will shortly be outfitted with the world's largest digital camera, a device with 1.4 billion pixels. The full Pan-STARRS observatory, which is expected to be completed in 2009, will have four such mirrors and will survey the whole sky several times each month.
Scientists on the Hilo campus will contribute both to the development of the system and to reaping the scientific rewards that will follow once the observatory becomes operational. Students and faculty at UH Hilo will also be active in spreading the word of the educational opportunities arising from the project in the local community and will develop material that can be used in high schools to promote the project.
The project capitalizes on expertise in developing astronomical detectors at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy in Manoa, where experts are working with MIT's Lincoln Laboratory to develop the new detectors. The data will be processed with the help of the Maui High Performance Computer Center (MHPCC) on Maui, and data will be made available to the community via a database being developed by partner Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). The final system is planned to replace the University's 36-year-old 2.2-meter (88-inch) telescope on Mauna Kea. Institute for Astronomy Director Dr. Rolf Kudritzki said, "Pan-STARRS is the first major telescope facility to be developed by the IfA in several decades. It leverages the unique features of Hawaiian observing sites which deliver the sharpest images on the planet, as well as the enormous strengths in both technological and scientific skills that have been built up at the University. Larger telescopes on Mauna Kea will be used to follow up the discoveries of Pan-STARRS."
A major goal of Pan-STARRS is to discover and characterize Earth-approaching objects, both asteroids and comets, that might pose a danger to our planet. However, the huge volume of images produced by this system will provide valuable data for many other kinds of scientific programs. The system will generate up to 10 terabytes (10 million megabytes) of data per night, and these data will be used to generate a multicolor digital atlas of the entire sky as seen from Hawaii. Dr. Nick Kaiser, leader of the project says, "By being able to scan the sky so rapidly and repeatedly, this observatory will open up a whole range of new possibilities in 'time-domain astronomy.' It will make enormous numbers of discoveries of moving objects like asteroids, variable stars and transients like supernovae and hypernovae. The data will be used to map the dark matter in the Universe, and also to characterize the mysterious 'dark energy' that is driving the universal expansion."
"We welcome the participation of our colleagues and students from UH Hilo," said Dr. Kaiser, emphasizing the importance the University of Hawaii places on educating Hawaii's students. UH Hilo Physics Department Chair Dr. Robert Fox says, "Our involvement with Pan-STARRS greatly expands UH Hilo's ability to provide a unique astronomy education on the slopes of one of the world’s premier observational sites."
The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.
Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaii is the state's sole public system of higher education. The UH System provides an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and community programs on 10 campuses and through educational, training, and research centers across the state. UH enrolls more than 50,000 students from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, and around the world.