Wednesday, October 9, 2002

University of Hawaii

UH enlisted to spot
‘killer asteroids’

Its Astronomy Institute will help
design an array of telescopes

By Helen Altonn

A $40 million array of small telescopes is expected to be operating in Hawaii in four years to detect "killer asteroids," supernovae and other objects.

The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has received $3.4 million from the Air Force Research Laboratories to design the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS.

When completed in late 2006, it's expected to be more powerful in surveying the sky than all existing telescopes combined.

Astronomer Nicholas Kaiser, principal investigator, said the institute is testing sites at Mauna Kea, on the Big Island; and Haleakala, Maui.

Institute Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki said both sites are excellent for night observations, but he thinks Mauna Kea is slightly better for the main mission: to detect dangerous asteroids.

"They are very, very faint, tiny objects, so in order to detect them, you need perfect image quality," he said. "It requires a very quiet, stable atmosphere, with as little twinkle of stars as possible."

Particularly exciting, Kudritzki said, is that telescopes can help track asteroids.

"More and more people are starting to realize what kind of threats they are to life on Earth," Kudritzki said. "The purpose of our project is to detect them well in advance, long before they have a chance to impact."

Roughly half the objects discovered in current surveys are bigger than a mile in diameter, Kaiser said.

"Impacts of this size cause global-scale catastrophes," he said.

Kaiser said a 6-meter telescope was proposed by the astronomy community over the next decade to survey the sky repeatedly.

As an alternative, the institute proposed an array of smaller telescopes, expected to be faster and cheaper to build, he said.

Details still are up in the air, but the scientists now envision four telescopes under 2 meters in diameter. They would have revolutionary optical sensors, automatically scanning 75 percent of the sky.

The institute has some of the world's leading experts in electronic cameras, who will collaborate with Lincoln Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop advanced detectors.

"The great thing about this kind of project is it's going to produce one basic data product from which lots of different science applications can benefit," Kaiser said.

"In the past, it was one man and telescope against the universe. ... We want to build a facility to do one thing, but do it very, very well and cost-effectively."

Pan-STARRS fits into that model, he said, explaining the array will be able to image an area about 30 to 40 times larger than the full moon with one exposure.

The data will enable astronomers over five or eight years to "build up an incredibly sensitive image of the entire sky," he said, adding that images will be combined in the computer "to produce a fantastic multicolored digital atlas of the sky."

Kaiser said one advantage of putting the telescopes on Mauna Kea is that they could be installed at the 88-inch telescope facility in a room now housing a defunct spectrograph.

"We're painfully aware of the sensitivity about putting up any new large facilities on Mauna Kea particularly," he said. "We feel this will be rather different from most planned facilities in that it can be very compact."

Logistically, however, it would be more convenient to put the telescopes on Maui because the huge volumes of data will be processed there by the Maui High Performance Computer Center and Science Applications International Corp.

"(Pan-STARRS) is a big team effort here, a testament to the diversity of the Institute for Astronomy. ... That is partly what gives us confidence that we can get the project done in such an aggressive time scale," Kaiser said.

UH Institute for Astronomy
NASA asteroid tracking site

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