Friday, June 15, 2001

Hilo firm to build
infrared star imager

By Rod Thompson
Big Island correspondent

HILO >> A Hilo technology company has been awarded a $4.18 million contract to build an instrument to help astronomers find planets around nearby stars.

Mauna Kea Infrared LLC received the contract from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea.

The announcement was made by Douglas Toomey, owner of Mauna Kea Infrared and a 21-year veteran of designing instruments for the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

The instrument, called a Near Infrared Coronographic Imager, will work by blotting out the light of a star under observation. That will allow astronomers to look at other light from the area of the star, such as reflected light from a planet.

To detect that faint light, a camera will split the light into two channels, then analyze the differences between them.

The instrument will look at infrared light because it is cooler than the light from stars, and the light from planets is also cooler.

About $3 million of the $4.18 million price tag will be spent in Hilo, Toomey said. The funding originates from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The instrument, designed for use on the Gemini telescope, will be the size of two telephone booths and weigh 2 tons, Toomey said.

It will take about four years to build.

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