UH Hilo Hawaiian language expert Larry Kimura names new telescope instrument Nāmakanui (The Big Eyes)

The name of the telescope instrument, Nāmakanui (The Big Eyes), to be installed at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Maunakea, refers to the three individual receivers that make up the instrument, each of which Kimura named after three red-colored, big-eyed species of nocturnal fish: ‘Ū‘ū, ‘Āweoweo, and ‘Ala‘ihi.

By Susan Enright

Larry Kimura
Larry Kimura

A new instrument to be installed at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Maunakea has been named Nāmakanui by renowned Hawaiian language expert Larry Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Nāmakanui (The Big Eyes) will allow astronomers to seek out the coldest gas and dust in the universe opening a new window into the universe from Maunakea.

The new instrument is comprised of three cameras, each studying the universe at a different wavelength or color of light. The name Nāmakanui, The Big Eyes, refers to the three individual receivers that make up the instrument, each of which Kimura named after red-colored, big-eyed species of nocturnal fish: ‘Ū‘ū (for the 1.2mm detector), ‘Āweoweo (0.8mm), and ‘Ala‘ihi (3.5mm).

East Asian Observatory operates the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope from a base facility in Hilo, where Kimura saw the instrument in person when it arrived a month or so ago.

“With today’s telescopes we have much more to see and learn about the lani, our heavens,” says Kimura. “So when Jessica Dempsey [deputy director of the East Asian Observatory] asked if I could name this new instrument to probe the darkest places in space, it took me into the ocean, where, in the darkness of night, various sea life are active, such as our nocturnal red-hued fish—the ‘ū‘ū, ‘ala‘ihi and ‘āweoweo—that have large eyes to help them see in that darkness.”

He adds, “Jessica had to make a special request that this instrument be painted red to represent these red big-eyed fish.”

Two women stand next to large red barrel-shaped instrument.
Jessica Dempsey (at right), deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, and a member of the observatory staff, next to the new instrument at the base facility lab in Hilo. Screenshot from Big Island News Video.

According to a release from the observatory, Nāmakanui will peer into the darkest and coldest regions of space to help astronomers hunt for objects they currently are unable to see.

“We love the names Dr. Kimura chose—how they describe the species of fish in Hawaiian waters that come out in the darkness of night to hunt with their large sensitive eyes,” says Dempsey.

Photo of the telescope showing the three embedded cameras, with arrows pointing to each lens: ‘Ū‘ū ["Soldierfish"] 230GHz 1mm; ‘Āla‘ihi ["Squirrelfish] 86GHz 3.5mm; ‘Āweoweo ["Big Eye"] 345GHz 0.9mm.
Image with the names of the three receivers inside Nāmakanui. Photo from EAO on Twitter.
Hawaiian naming

The Hawaiian naming of telescope instruments and astronomical findings is part of a larger initiative to form stronger culture and science partnerships. A new program, A Hua He Inoa, is the first of its kind in the world that weaves traditional indigenous practices into the process of officially naming astronomical discoveries. Hawaiian speaking students in the program have named two asteroids in the solar system, Kamo‘oalewa and Ka‘epaoka‘awela.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to carry on the naming in Hawaiian, objects in the sky that our Hawaiian ancestors observed only with their eyes, unaided by any modern instruments,” Kimura says.

The mission of Nāmakanui

When operational, the instrument will be cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, in order to be sensitive to the faint radiation emitted from cold, star forming gases such as carbon monoxide, and other complex molecules which coalesce in our galaxy and beyond.

The observatory team plans to use Nāmakanui next year for the next experiment with the Event Horizon Telescope as the world-wide collection of telescopes hunt for the next image of a black hole. The observatory and its neighbor on the summit of Maunakea, the Submillimeter Array, participated in the last Event Horizon Telescope experiment, which led to the immense achievement of imaging Pōwehi, the black hole at the center of the massive M87 galaxy, announced earlier this year. Kimura also named Pōwehi.

In the next hunt, Nāmakanui’s detectors will bring four times more sensitive measurements to the experiment, giving astronomers an even greater chance of imaging these mysterious monsters at the centers of the galaxy and beyond.

Installation of the new instrument is currently delayed due to access issues on Maunakea caused by the ongoing protests against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. This puts the staff in a race against time in getting the instrument prepared, installed and commissioned in time for the Event Horizon Telescope tests later this year and early next year. Currently, testing that was supposed to happen on the summit is being conducted at the East Asian Observatory labs in Hilo, according to a release.

This post was updated on Aug. 11, 2019, to clarify the translation of Nāmakanui and to add more information and quotations from Larry Kimura. 


Story by Susan Enright, public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.

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