Mauna Kea Observatories

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The world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared and submillimeter astronomy is positioned at the 4,200 meter (13,796-foot ) summit of Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is managed by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

The Mauna Kea Observatories began from a single telescope placed at the summit on the advice of Gerard Kuiper in 1965 following the dedication of the Mauna Haleakala Observatory.[1][2]

Mauna Kea’s environment has a number of advantages. The vast expanse of surrounding ocean provides a thermally stable environment lacking mountain ranges that disturb the upper atmosphere or throw light-reflecting dust into the air. The dearth of city lights means that there is usually negligible light pollution and the atmosphere over Mauna Kea is normally calm, clear and dry.[3]

The observatories represent a multinational effort which includes groups from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the USA.[4]

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Mauna Kea has thirteen working telescopes: nine optical and infrared, three submillimeter wavelength and one radio.



The United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope, the world's largest infra-red telescope, is situated near the summit of Mauna Kea at 4194 meters above sea level. Owned by the United Kingdom Science and Technology Facilities Council, it is operated by the staff of the Joint Astronomy Centre located in Hilo. The JAC also operates the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT).[5]

Optical and infrared

University of Hawaii 2.2-meter telescope[6]

University of Hawaii UH 0.6-meter telescope

Canada-France-Hawaii 3.6 meter optical/infrared telescope (CFHT)[7]

W. M. Keck Observatory

The Keck Observatory consists of twin, 10 meter, optical infrared telescopes, both standing eight stories high and weighing 300 tons. The twin telescopes utilise primary mirrors, ten meters in diameter composed of 36 hexagonal segments to form a single piece of reflective glass.

Keck I began operations in May of 1993 and Keck II in October of 1996. Keck observatory was funded by a grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation and is operated by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA) under the direction of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). [3]

Each of the twin telescopes uses an altitude-azimuth design to provide optimal mass and strength balance: The stiff construction resists structural twisting and warping from gravitational forces, making it possible to accurately track objects moving across the sky.

The dome of the observatory is insulated and chilled to or below freezing to control temperature variation that would otherwise deform the telescopes’ steel and mirrors. Astronomers gather data remotely from facilities in Waimea as assistants operate the telescope.[8]

Turbulent atmospheric conditions which normally distort astronomical observations are corrected by adaptive optics (AO) which employ a deformable mirror 6 inches in diameter that can change shape 670 times per second to cancel out atmospheric distortion and increase sharpness by a factor of 10.[9]

Subaru 8.2 meter optical-infrared Telescope[10]

Gemini Observatory[11]

  • Gemini North Telescope
  • Gemini South Telescope

Submillimeter wavelength

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope

Located at 4092 meters above sea level near the Mauna Kea summit, the 15 meter JCMT is currently the largest telescope operating in the submillimeter region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The JCMT is employed in studies of the Solar System, interstellar gas and dust as well as distant galaxies.[12]

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory[13]

Submillimeter Array[14]


Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)

The VLBA is a system of ten radio telescope antennas stretching 8,046 kilometers (5,000 miles) from Hawaii to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Each antenna weighs 1,058,208 kilograms (240 tons) with a diameter of 25 meters (82 feet) and a height of about 10 stories when upright. The detail achieved by the VLBA has been compared to reading a newspaper in Los Angeles while standing in New York City.[15]

The VLBA is controlled remotely from the operations center in Socorro, New Mexico and constitutes the world's largest full-time astronomical instrument. Construction of the array took more than seven years beginning in 1986 and was completed in 1993 at a cost of $85 million dollars.[16]


  1. Origins of Astronomy in Hawai’i Steiger, Walter University of Hawaii
  2. Astronomy in Hawai`i 1964-1970 Jefferies, John T. University of Hawaii
  3. 3.0 3.1 W. M. Keck Observatory
  4. Mauna Kea Telescopes
  5. UKIRT
  6. [1]
  7. CFHT
  8. Keck Observatory Telescopes
  9. Keck Observatory Mirror
  10. Subaru Telescope National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
  11. Gemini Observatory Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
  12. James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Joint Astronomy Center
  13. [2]
  14. [3]
  15. Welcome to the Very Long Baseline Array! National Radio Astronomy Observatory
  16. The Very Long Baseline Array National Radio Astronomy Observatory