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Maunakea's first large telescope celebrates 50 years of science



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Advertisement showing UH 88 incht telescope in 1975 Images of UH 88 inch telescope with Robo AO instrument
An advertisement in the November 1975 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, showing the UH 88-inch telescope.
Credit: Sky & Telescope
Hi-res JPG
The UH 88-inch telescope as it is today, with the Robo-AO instrumentation mounted.
Credit: C. Baranec/IfA
Hi-res JPG

The University of Hawaiʻi's 88-inch telescope is celebrating its Golden Anniversary on June 26th. Often called the UH88, the telescope was dedicated on this date in 1970, beginning decades of incredible scientific output, and ushering in an era of unparalleled astronomy from Maunakea. Now, 50 years later, the observatory continues to modernize and pave the way for others.

When the UH88 first opened, digital cameras did not exist. Astronomers spent long, cold nights at the summit of Maunakea, manually guiding the telescope, using photographic plates, and later, analog electronic detectors to observe stars, galaxies, and planets. Today, the observatory is undergoing a major renovation to go fully robotic. Automated control systems along with new hardware, and technologies will be added so multiple cameras can be utilized in a single night of observing. It is also the only telescope on Maunakea where the science use of the facility is decided entirely by UH astronomers. As a result, students can obtain a significant fraction of observing time for their projects.

"These are projects where you need a lot of time to study many, many objects, or to monitor objects over long periods of time. This kind of research is really hard to do on other telescopes so the facility gives our students a real advantage," said UH88 Director Mark Chun.

Throughout the past 50 years, the UH88 has been used to make important discoveries and develop tools that astronomers use at telescopes around the world and in space. One of its most famous discoveries is the Kuiper Belt - distant objects beyond Neptune in the outer solar system. Former UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA) astronomers Dave Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the doughnut-shaped region in 1992. Starting in the 1980s, they used the UH88 to search for Pluto-like objects and found dozens. Today, nearly 2,000 objects are known to orbit in the Kuiper Belt. The discovery led astronomers to realize that Pluto is the largest and closest of these objects, and resulted in its demotion from being a full-fledged planet.

"The Kuiper Belt has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system. Not only does it answer a long-standing question about where comets come from, but the structure of the Belt has given us a new picture of solar system formation and evolution," explained Jewitt.

In 2003, the UH88 was used to detect a disk of material around the nearby star AU Microscopii (or AU Mic for short). Only two days ago, an international team including astronomers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa reported in the international journal Nature the discovery of an infant planet around AU Mic .

The telescope has also played a major role in the development and testing of new tools to observe celestial objects. The HAWAII series of infrared imaging detectors was developed by IfA Astronomer Don Hall and his team in collaboration with Teledyne Technologies. The HAWAII name is an acronym for 'HgCdTe Astronomical Wide Area Infrared Imager' and was given in recognition of where it was developed and tested. After undergoing rigorous testing at IfA's Hilo facility, the technology was first deployed on the UH88 to detect light at wavelengths longer than what we see with our eyes. By using infrared sensors, scientists are able to observe the formation of the first stars and galaxies. HAWAII arrays are now the industry standard, used on many ground-based and space-based telescopes. They have been deployed on the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Euclid space telescope, and will be launched on three scientific instruments on the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

"These detectors are vital to the long term success of astronomy. They are key to space missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope, ground-based telescopes such those on Maunakea today, and are critical for the upcoming 30-meter class telescopes," Hall explained. Sadly, Don Hall passed away earlier this year.

In 1994, one of the first HAWAII detectors was used on the UH88 to capture the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy into Jupiter. It was one of the few ground-based telescopes to take infrared images of the impact. Also in our solar system, the UH88 was used to establish that Asteroid 7968 Elst-Pizarro was recurrently active, giving it a secondary designation as Comet 133P/Elst-Pizarro. This discovery, along with others found later at observatories around the world, led to the designation of a new class of asteroids known as Main Belt Comets (MBCs). The UH88 also took repeated measurements of Comet Tempel 1 to accurately measure its rotation rate, so that NASA's Stardust-NExT mission could rendezvous with it in 2011. In 2003, the telescope was used to detect a disk of material around AU Microscopii, a nearby star with a recently-discovered Neptune-sized planet in a tight orbit.

The UH88 has made major contributions in the field of adaptive optics (AO), where astronomers measure and compensate for image blurring due to Earth's atmosphere. Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded a $1.1 million grant to install a high-tech shape-shifting secondary mirror on the telescope. This project is a pathfinder for future adaptive optics systems that may be installed on the current 8-10 m class telescopes as well as the next-generation of extremely large aperture telescopes.

When it first opened, the 88-inch was the largest telescope on Maunakea, and the eighth largest in the world; today, it is the smallest operational telescope there. However, by adapting how it operates and by deploying innovative instruments the 88-inch continues to be scientifically productive. In 2008 the UH88 was the first telescope on Maunakea to to switch to full remote observing so astronomers in Honolulu, Hilo, or even around the world could observe without being there.

The facility will now take the next step and move to robotic operations where even the choices of observations will be done entirely by a computer. This change will allow the facility to quickly change between targets, science program, and even instruments in response to follow-up and study in detail the discoveries from the sky survey telescopes such as the IfA Pan-Starrs, ATLAS, and ASAS-SN projects. This rapid response capability will revolutionize the science that the facility can do. A new Robo-AO2 system will bring high-resolution imaging similar to the Hubble to the facility. The capability will provide high-resolution images at visible wavelengths where it is difficult for larger telescopes' AO system to operate. These new directions will ensure that the UH88 will remain productive for many years to come.

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 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 Haleakalā and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi.