UC Astronomers Operate Keck Telescopes from Mainland

May 30, 2000

Contact: Tim Stephens, UCSC Public Information Office
831-459-2495, stephens@cats.ucsc.edu

SANTA CRUZ, CA--A remote observing facility nearing completion at the University of California at Santa Cruz, will enable astronomers to operate the powerful Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii without leaving the mainland.

The new facility will be especially useful for astronomers conducting short observing runs, said Joseph Miller, director of UC Observatories/Lick Observatory (UCO/Lick Observatory). Almost half of the observing runs on the Keck Telescopes are for one night or half a night.

“This removes all the time and expense of traveling to Hawaii for just one night of observing, and even for two nights some would feel the travel savings are worth it,” Miller said.

Astronomers working in large teams, students, and instrumentation specialists will also benefit from the facility and from similar remote observing sites planned for other UC campuses, Miller added. Teams of astronomers collaborating on a project usually can afford to send only one or two people to Hawaii for an observing run, but now those left behind can join in the observations.

“With additional facilities on other campuses, teams of observers can be split among several sites and they will all be able see the same thing at the same time,” Miller said.

Students will also be able to get a taste of real-time observing with a world-class telescope, without needing to find travel funds. And the builders of instruments such as spectrographs that are used in conjunction with the Keck Telescopes will have easy access for troubleshooting and monitoring the performance of their instruments.

The remote observing facility will take advantage of a new high-speed data link that connects observatories on Mauna Kea with Internet-2, a high-performance network used by U.S. research and education institutions. The 45-megabit-per-second link was established through the collective efforts of several agencies and institutions, including the University of Hawaii (UH), the Gemini Telescope Consortium, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID), which oversees Internet-2. The U.S. Department of Defense provided the critical connection to the mainland on its Defense Research and Engineering Network.

“Getting that connection was a major breakthrough, because a commercial telecom provider would charge $1.5 million per year for a 45-megabit-per-second circuit from the mainland to Hawaii,” said Robert Kibrick, a research astronomer at UCO/Lick. Kibrick, who serves on a UCAID advisory committee, has been working to establish remote observing from the mainland since 1993.

Remote observing from a facility in Waimea, 48 miles from the summit of Mauna Kea, is already the dominant mode of operation for most astronomers using the Keck Telescopes. This facility has freed researchers from the altitude sickness that often accompanies observing at the summit. Kibrick is setting up the UC Santa Cruz facility to provide the same operational capabilities as the facility in Waimea.

Located just down the hallway from Kibrick’s office at UCSC, the remote observing facility features several powerful workstations running specialized software for remote observing, as well as a videoconferencing station for communicating with support staff and collaborators in Hawaii. Several ISDN lines will provide a back-up connection, albeit much slower, in case the Internet-2 connection goes down during an observing run.

Unlike the Waimea facility, UCSC won’t have dark, quiet accommodations for sleeping during the daytime, which is one reason astronomers with long observing runs will probably continue to go to Hawaii. Isolation from interruptions and distractions is another advantage of leaving the mainland, according to Miller.

“For several nights of observing, most people I’ve talked to would rather go to Hawaii,” Miller said. “I like to go because it allows total immersion in your research, whereas here you’re in reach of telephones and you might not be able to get as much work done. But remote observing offers a lot of benefits, and we plan to use the same facility for remote observations from the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton.”

IRemote observing facilities are also planned for several other UC campuses, including UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UCLA. The UCSC facility will be the first in routine use when it becomes operational later this summer, Kibrick said.

UCO/Lick Observatory, which is based on the UCSC campus, oversees the use of the W.M. Keck Observatory by UC astronomers. Observing time on the Keck Telescopes is shared between astronomers from UC, California Institute of Technology, NASA, and UH. The twin Keck Telescopes, each with a primary mirror 10 meters in diameter, are the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world.

Editor’s Notes:

Reporters may contact Joe Miller at (831) 459-2991 or miller@ucolick.org.
This release is available electronically at the following Web site: http://press.ucsc.edu.

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