From vision to reality: UH Hilo’s Hōkū Ke‘a telescope comes into focus

UH Hilo astronomer Pierre Martin and student Callie Crowder began work on the new educational telescope in September—they assembled and calibrated the various components, including the computers, dome, and instruments. Now they have to make everything robotic.

By Lara Hughes.

Professor and student pose with telescope in background.
(l-r) Callie Crowder and René Pierre Martin working on the PlaneWave CDK700 0.7-meter telescope system at the UH Hilo Sciences and Technology Building.

The Hōkū Ke‘a Educational Observatory is a facility currently in development at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. At the core of the observatory is a state-of-the-art PlaneWave CDK700 0.7-meter telescope system, now under development on campus but eventually to be housed in a yet-to-be-built modern “clamshell” dome.

Thanks to funding from the State of Hawai‘i’s Capital Improvement Program (through a proposal by the UH Institute for Astronomy) and NASA’s Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium, the team vision of astronomer René “Pierre” Martin and student Callie Crowder is becoming reality.

For several months, the two have been working on assembling and calibrating the telescope at the Sciences and Technology Building on the campus of UH Hilo.

Martin is an assistant professor of astronomy at UH Hilo and the director of the observatory. Before taking on his current roles, Martin served as the science director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope for 11 years and the executive director of the WIYN Observatory in Arizona for three years.

He is now overseeing the development of the Hōkū Ke‘a Observatory and working closely with Crowder, an astronomy student at UH Hilo and recipient of a Hawai‘i Space Grant award.

Crowder wrote a proposal and received award funding from the Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium for her traineeship with Martin on the integration and commissioning of the Hōkū Ke‘a Observatory. She is a dean’s list honoree and plans to graduate in 2017.

Photo of telescope.
The PlaneWave CDK700 0.7-meter telescope currently located in the UH Hilo Sciences and Technology Building.

Part of the Hōkū Ke‘a mission will be to undertake research and educational projects and work with local communities to bring opportunities to children.

Once the observatory becomes fully operational, high school and college students from across the state will be able to operate the telescope either on-site, remotely or robotically.

Martin and Crowder began work on the telescope in September of 2016. They assembled and calibrated the various components, including the computers, dome, instruments and telescope.

“Essentially the observatory is a large ensemble of components, and it has to work all together to make a whole,” explains Martin. “All of these systems have to be controlled through different layers of software. Our role is to try to integrate all of that, to provide an observing environment where it is very easy to take data.”

Although many of the main components have been assembled, Crowder says there is still a lot more to be done. She has reapplied for the Space Grant for the spring 2017 semester and her request was recently approved.

“We have to make everything robotic,” she says.

Crowder is very interested in the possibilities surrounding the robotic features, since it will benefit students who are not on-site and allow them to use the telescope remotely at times that best fit their schedules.

The endeavor has been a great opportunity for Crowder and has made a positive impact on her future as she plans to attend graduate school in the fall of 2017.

“I’m super excited,” she says. “It’s really been a good experience for learning for the future.”

Of their work together on the telescope, Martin is very positive.

“It’s always fun,” he says. “We do this for the students. We need them to learn about techniques in astronomy. This should help them to go to grad school or to join the job market, so this is for them. It’s been fun for Callie, but it’s been fun for me, too.”

With the mission for the telescope to be of use to students, Martin is glad that right from the start students like Crowder are getting involved.

“Having a lot of help doing this is also very good,” he says. “I see Callie as a collaborator.”

Looking toward next semester, the team is excited to work on their biggest challenge yet: software set-up. The amalgam of software components will help to robotize the telescope, allowing it to be remotely operated using different devices, including mobile, and be completely automated.

The team will need to configure all of the various components to work together autonomously, using software that they will be configuring to the specifications particular to the telescope and other observatory components.

They also plan on looking very seriously at site options for the telescope and the Hōkū Ke‘a Observatory.

Crowder hopes to see what she refers to as the “first light” of the project, where the telescope will be used in full functionality to observe the cosmos.

“I would love to get a picture of the Orion Nebula,” she says.

Depending on the development of a site, the Hōkū Ke‘a Observatory should become operational in 2017 and holds promise to move astronomy education forward in Hawai‘i.


About the author of this story: Lara Hughes (senior, business administration) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories.