EDITORIAL: Hawaii ideal for astronomy
Mar 16, 2013 (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Mauna Kea is a natural treasure for what is barely there -- clouds, dust, light pollution -- and a national treasure for what is there, in abundance: astronomical discovery. For the last 20 years, a major driver of that scientific legacy, the W.M. Keck Observatory, has delivered on its technological promise, many times over.
The anniversary has provided an exciting focal point for scientists gathered this week at a conference on Hawaii island. These 20 years have been packed with discoveries, but not so much time has passed that anyone forgets what it took to bring Keck here in the first place.
Oil businessman William Myron Keck created the foundation later overseen by his son Howard B. Keck, who, in 1985, gave $70 million to underwrite the development of a telescope. It was the first of two built for the observatory: Keck I began operating in May 1993, and Keck II was built three years later.
The twin domes of Keck have become a distinctive part of the mountain, a silhouette made all the more memorable because of the data collected through these eyes. What made the advances possible was the telescopes' design: 36 hexagonal mirrors that work together as a powerful single unit. Their optics help compensate for the blurring of atmospheric turbulence that does exist, even at more than 13,000 feet above sea level.
Hundreds of researchers in the broad U.S. astronomical community have had access to the telescopes through a partnership between the observatory and NASA. Approved topics of investigation include the discovery of planets beyond the solar system, the origin and nature of planetary systems, studies of our own solar system and research of stars, galaxies and other facets of cosmic origins.
Among the thrills emanating most recently from research: In December a planet was detected in orbit around the star Tau Ceti, just near enough to create the temperatures and other conditions necessary for life. At this week's conference, a new study was unveiled in which water vapor was found in the atmosphere of another distant planet.
The local perspective on the observatory is that the facility, with its invaluable collection of precision instruments and an unequalled eye on the heavens, has been a boon to the established and budding scientists at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.
Of course, the pursuits of science in this ecologically sensitive and culturally revered place have been anything but straightforward. The natural advantages of Mauna Kea secured its selection for the Thirty Meter Telescope, the next state-of-the-art facility pegged for the mountaintop, but the project has been complicated by legal battles with Native Hawaiian and environmental groups.
While maintaining balance among competing interests is crucial -- Hawaii authorities must take care in managing the mountain environment as old telescopes become obsolete and new equipment goes in -- the importance of scientific discovery to the state and the nation cannot be denied.
The success of the Keck Observatory has been a boon to astronomers worldwide and an educational resource for the islands' young explorers as well. It deserves a birthday celebration of cosmic proportions.
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