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Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Workshop uses ancient
astronomy in search
for life in space

By Helen Altonn


A workshop linking modern and ancient astronomy began yesterday at the University of Hawaii-Manoa for 50 science and math teachers and high school students.

The program may help to bridge some of the problems that have occurred with the master plan and science issues on Mauna Kea, said astronomer Karen Meech.

"What is it doing for the common person? This will be a neat bridge, tying ancient Hawaiian astronomy to the modern search for origins."

Participants will go Thursday to the Big Island, where they will look at the heavens from telescopes on the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel Golf Course, study astronomical alignments at the Cape Kumukai heiau and grind mirrors to make telescopes.

This is the second three-week summer science workshop conducted by Meech, with the UH Institute for Astronomy.

She received a National Science Foundation grant for a five-year program to give science and math teachers training and hands-on experience to take astronomy into their classrooms.

Thirty teachers, including some from the Hawaiian language immersion studies program, and 20 high school students are enrolled. The science foundation funding is for the teachers; a local donor provided $100,000 so students could participate, Meech said. They were chosen competitively.

She said NASA is sponsoring a component in the program blending astronomy and biology. Topics will revolve around the search for life in space and environments in the solar system that might sustain life.

Four NASA scientists will run the sessions -- two from Colorado State University, one from the University of Connecticut and one from NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

A series of biology experiments will be performed to simulate space environments to assess the chances of bringing things back, Meech said.

The group will visit the Air Force's Palehua Solar Observatory above Makakilo, Oahu. And on the Big Island, Meech has arranged to use Keck Observatory's headquarters in Waimea for remote observations with the NASA Infrared Telescope on Mauna Kea.

The group will stay at the Hawaiian Preparatory Academy on the Big Island and "get into intensely hands-on activities," Meech said.

About 20 small telescopes have been loaned to the workshop from all over the state and will be set up at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel's golf course for nightly observations, she said.

About 20 or 30 guest speakers are lined up, including an optician who is an expert at building telescopes, Meech said. He will help the teachers and students build five telescopes, grinding the mirrors and testing the optics.

"We're trying to blend Hawaiian culture into the program by looking at ancient astronomy," Meech said, noting there may be some astronomical alignments from Big Island archaeological sites.

She received a UH grant to buy surveying equipment and will use it survey the heiau at Cape Kumukahi, on the island's easternmost point. It has four stone pillars that apparently are aligned to the summer solstice sunrise, she said.

An archaeo-astronomer in England, Clive Ruggles at the University of Lester, is interested in coming here to do field work, she said.

"He would like to get involved with the Hawaiian community and use students for field assistants."

Meech said she will start training students with her survey equipment and will go to England in August for more training by Ruggles.

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