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New telescope will benefit UH


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POSTED: Monday, December 01, 2008

HILO » A new agreement between the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a Taiwanese academy of sciences lays the groundwork for a new, small telescope on the Big Island while also providing money for astronomy education and related studies, UH-Hilo professor Robert Fox said.

The telescope, which can fit into a garage-size building, will hunt for cometlike objects on the edge of the solar system outside the orbit of Neptune. It will be an extension of the four-telescope Taiwan-American Occultation Survey already under way in southern Taiwan. South Korea also is a major partner.

Fox was careful not to use the word “;telescope,”; instead calling it an “;instrument,”; the word used in the UH-Hilo-Taiwan documents.

Fox also emphasized that the instrument will not be built on any part of Mauna Kea. He said he was not free to name Big Island sites that are being considered, although the eventual site will be at a high elevation above normal cloud levels.

The words “;telescope”; and “;Mauna Kea”; can cause an emotional response among some people on the Big Island opposed to more telescopes on that mountain.

The office of Gov. Linda Lingle announced last week the agreement between Taiwan's Academia Sinica and the university.

Fox described himself as the head of the astronomy science team that worked on the agreement. He credited UH-Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng, head of the administrative team, with “;admirable”; insistence that the agreement must be culturally sensitive and contain benefits for undergraduate UH-Hilo students.

A later, more detailed version of the agreement will require a specific number of internships at the university, each funded at a specific level, he said.

Funding also will benefit the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program at the university and the independent Imiloa astronomy education center in Hilo, which promotes respect for pre-European achievements by Hawaiians in navigational astronomy.

Fox visited the four existing telescopes at Lulin Mountain in Taiwan. He described them as the size of sago palms, plants that usually do not grow much more than 6 feet tall.

The TAOS study can use small telescopes because they are searching for relatively close objects in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the solar system, not the enormously distant objects that the big Mauna Kea telescopes look at.

TAOS compiles and then computer-analyzes enormous amounts of visual data, looking for rare cases when Kuiper Belt objects blot out the light of distant stars.

That is the only way to discover and count the objects since they are too small—generally 2 to 17 miles in diameter—to be seen directly, TAOS partner Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said.