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Tuesday, June 13, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Radio analyst Steve Heywood climbs up to join Greg Golojuch
atop a dish at the Palehua Solar Observatory above Makakilo.
The Air Force station provides information to NORAD,
space shuttle operations and more.

Watching a
fiery sun

Oahu's Palehua observatory
listens in as solar activity nears
its peak of an 11-year cycle

By Helen Altonn


THE startled science teacher from Finland jumped when a buzzer went off at the Palehua Solar Observatory, signaling unusual activity on the sun.

"It goes off more if the flare is bigger," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Heywood, radio analyst at the 1,700-foot-high observatory above Makakilo.

Part of the 55th Space Weather Squadron in Colorado, the Leeward Oahu facility is one of six Air Force observatories monitoring the sun worldwide.

Others in the Solar Electro-Optical Network are in Australia, Italy, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

"At all times, somebody is looking at the sun," said Capt. Shawn Filby, in charge of the Palehua Observatory. "When it's daytime here, it's nighttime in Italy."

Their job is bigger than usual this year with solar activity reaching a peak in an 11-year cycle, called the solar maximum.

"You have to listen to the sun," said Master Sgt. Sheila Dollison, superintendent of the observatory. "What kicks up there can cause so much damage."

Listening is what the Palehua Observatory does. The Australia and Italy observatories are the only ones in the solar network with optical observing capabilities.

PALEHUA operates a radio solar telescope, monitoring radio frequencies with four antennas. One is 28 feet, others 8 feet and 3 feet. One that is about 15 or 18 feet high is omnidirectional.

The six-acre facility in the Waianae Mountains, complete with wild turkeys Limpy and Spooky, also offers educational tours. The staff recently hosted 100 math and science teachers from Finland on a world excursion. They came here from Mexico and planned to visit science facilities in New Zealand and Australia before returning to Helsinki.

Jukka Mattila, president of the Association of Finnish Teachers of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Information Technology, led the enthusiastic group. He said the participants paid for the trip themselves.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Esko Kuula takes a picture of his wife, Eeva, in front of one of
the observatory antennas. A hundred math and science
teachers from Finland visited the site.

They also toured the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy in Manoa. Interim Director Robert McLaren and astronomers Karen Meech, Jeff Kuhn and James Heasley talked to them about ancient Hawaiian astronomy, Mauna Kea's telescopes, research, education and outreach programs.

At Palehua, the Finnish teachers enjoyed the observatory's sweeping view of the coast. They commented on the flowers and "the nice place," and said they had learned much to share with their high school students.

Describing the observatory's purpose, Filby pointed out that solar flares produce enormous energy: "You could run all the vehicles on Earth in one burst for thousands of years."

Radiation off the sun can make the 93-million-mile journey to Earth in eight minutes, he said. High energy particles or protons are a little slower than the speed of light but can penetrate a satellite two hours after a flare, he said.

Geomagnetic disturbances can disrupt communications, shut down satellites and cause them to fall in their orbits.

"Our equipment can detect radio energy from bursts and give heads up to space forecasters," Heywood said.

The Air Force observatories provide alerts and information to support the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD), space shuttle operations, military surveillance and communications systems. The information also is available to U.S. civilian agencies, the European Space Agency and others, Filby said.

A noise storm on the sun set the buzzer off the day of the Finnish teachers' tour.

"Something is going on, kinda like boiling," Heywood said, explaining the beeping. "It could be a precursor to more activity." Activity has been building up, becoming intense, then quieting down, he said. "Sometime soon it will ramp up again."

Probably the biggest solar flare in modern history occurred in March 1989, knocking power out in Quebec for nine hours, Heywood noted.

AS the solar maximum becomes closer, Filby said, "We will see an increase in satellite anomalies or misbehaviors."

Palehua's original mission was to support manned space flights. It was the first Air Force solar observatory operating when Apollo II was launched in 1969. Filby said the location is excellent for the solar mission, with support from Hickam Air Force Base.

What does the staff do at the observatory between solar maximums?

"Certainly, it is a lot slower," Heywood said. But even when the sun is benign, it's not inactive, he said.

"We do listen. There are some effects on Earth."

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