Thursday, March 22, 2001

New tool will
clear telescope’s sight

UH's astronomy institute also
receives a contract to manage
the infrared telescope

By Helen Altonn

AN INSTRUMENT is being designed for the Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea that will remove the atmospheric disturbance so "it will be like putting a telescope in space," said Alan Tokunaga, IRTF Division chief in the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy.

An adaptive optics instrument will be finished this year that will remove the atmospheric disturbance. "It will allow us to achieve the full resolution of the telescope, which is limited by the size of the (120-inch) mirror," Tokunaga said.

The telescope facility has averaged about $300,000 a year in grants the past decade to build high-tech instruments for the infrared telescope, Tokunaga said, adding that it "has developed one of the best infrared instrumentation groups in the world."

The institute manages the telescope for NASA, and the university has received a new $17 million, five-year contract to operate the national telescope for astronomers in the United States. The institute has managed the telescope since it was completed in 1979.

"Winning this new award demonstrates NASA's continuing satisfaction with the excellent job we are doing," said IFA Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki.

TOKUNAGA SAID the infrared telescope supports NASA's space exploration program and astrophysical research by American astronomers. About half the observing time is devoted to solar system objects and the other half to all other areas of astronomy.

He said additional grants are sought to improve the telescope's performance. "We're in the middle of improving the image quality," he said. "Now, it's good but it could be a lot better." There is a program now at the facility to observe the emission from Jupiter's auroral zones, Tokunaga said. Observations are being coordinated from the Hubble Space Telescope, Galileo spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, and the Cassini spacecraft that recently passed Jupiter en route to Saturn, he said.

Ongoing research at the infrared observatory includes observations of Jupiter, of "brown dwarfs" or intermediate-size objects and very young stars -- many under 100,000 years old. An infrared telescope is able to see through interstellar "fog" that optical observations can't penetrate.

Tokunaga said award of the management contract to UH "gives us a chance to be a major participant in astronomical activities at Mauna Kea, and also to enhance our research and technical programs at the IFA.

"On a national scale, it's important because it is a national observatory, and we take pride in doing a good job in running it," Tokunaga said.

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