COURTESY UH INSTITUTE FOR ASTRONOMY
A base and dome for the prototype Pan-STARRS telescope on Haleakala was under construction in December. The building has since been completed. The telescope is designed to hunt for asteroids that cross near Earth's orbital path.
UH-Hilo joins asteroid hunt
Researchers will use a telescope on Maui to search for the threats
HILO » The University of Hawaii at Hilo has joined the hunt for "killer asteroids."
The university announced it was joining the Pan-STARRS program, which searches for asteroids that may be a threat to earth, including football-field sized asteroids that could slam into the planet and explode with the force of 1,000 megatons of TNT, 20 times bigger than the biggest nuclear weapon ever tested.
There's a one-in-700 chance that an asteroid 300 yards across or bigger could hit the earth this century, said Rolf Kudritzki, head of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.
As part of the new partnership, a new telescope is under development on Haleakala in Maui.
Developed to detect the danger, Pan-STARRS -- Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System -- is the first major telescope developed by the institute in decades, Kudritzki said.
A new dome for a prototype of Pan-STARRS has been completed on Haleakala.
"First light," the first test images from the telescope, is expected next month, said project leader Nick Kaiser.
Now is the time for Hilo astrophysics professors and students to join the project since it has passed the construction phase, Kudritzki said. "There is something for them to do (now)," he said.
Pan-STARRS isn't big. The Keck I and II telescopes on Mauna Kea each has a main mirror 10 meters across, or 33 feet.
The Pan-STARRS main mirror is just 1.8 meters across, a bit under 6 feet.
The big telescopes are designed to look far away at a tiny point. Pan-STARRS will keep its eyes inside the solar system, looking at an area of the sky 40 times the size of the full moon.
The preferred site for the full-scale Pan-STARRS facility, with four 1.8-meter mirrors, is on Mauna Kea, Kudritzki said. If an environmental study is favorable, the four 1.8-meter instruments would replace a 36-year-old telescope with a single 2.2 meter mirror about 2010.
While the telescopes are small, the digital cameras they use will be the largest ever built, each collecting 1.4 billion pixels of light. That's 200 times more than the 6 to 8 million pixel in a good commercial camera.
The light from the four telescopes will be combined by a computer, then piped to the Maui High Performance Computer Center for analysis.
Every night the four-fold instrument observes, it will generate 10 million megabytes of information on dangerous asteroids, objects in the Kuiper belt on the edge of the solar system, and theoretical, yet-unseen "dark matter," Kudritzki said.
On Mauna Kea the fourfold instrument could find nearly all dangerous asteroids in 10 years, Kudritzki said. If restricted to less optimum Maui, the search will take 20 years, he said.
The price to protect planet earth: $30 million to date for the single telescope on Maui, and another $40 million for the full set, Kaiser said.