New technology coming to UH 2.2-meter telescope, will bring research opportunities to UH Hilo and other students

Students at UH Hilo, among others, will have the opportunity to do research with new cutting-edge technology at the UH 2.2-meter telescope on Maunakea.

Mirror for the UH 2.2-meter telescope. At right, the telescope facility on Maunakea.
At left, rendering of the new “adaptive secondary” mirror for the UH 2.2-meter telescope that will be used to capture high-resolution images of stars and planets (photo credit: TNO/Mark Chun). At right, the recently renovated UH 2.2-meter telescope (photo credit: Christoph Baranec).

Students at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo will soon have the opportunity to do research with cutting-edge technology at the UH 2.2-meter telescope on Maunakea.  The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.1 million grant to a UH Mānoa Institute for Astronomy (IfA) scientist to install a high-tech shape-shifting secondary mirror on the telescope.

In addition to giving new life to an old telescope, the project presents a perfect opportunity to train the next generation of local scientists and engineers with new core technologies for astronomy.

“We are providing a unique educational experience for local high school students in Hilo and for UH Mānoa and UH Hilo graduate and undergraduate students,” says Mark Chun, an astronomer at IfA. “They are developing cutting-edge technology at a world-class science facility right here in UH.”

The technology

Turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere blurs images of distant objects, so astronomers have developed tools to measure and compensate for this blurring. Usually, this involves a special camera including a deformable mirror, which undoes the ever-changing distortion. Astronomers can now make the correction within the actual telescope optics.

The larger, primary mirror acts as a big “eyeball” to collect light, and the secondary mirror is typically used to send the light into the different cameras that take the scientific data. By making the secondary mirror flexible, the corrected image can be fed into a variety of instruments, not just one.

The new mirror, an “adaptive secondary,” uses a novel actuator technology developed by the research organization TNO (Netherlands) that enables very simple and high-performance operation. Once installed, it will deliver images free from the blurring effects of the atmosphere. This technology has the potential to be used in telescopes around the world of all sizes, including the next generation of extremely large ground-based telescopes such as the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Maunakea.

“[The UH 2.2-meter telescope] will be the first telescope on Maunakea to have an adaptive secondary and the first in the world with these novel actuators,” says Chun. “We’re leap-frogging ahead of the larger telescopes and paving a way for them.”

The new adaptive secondary mirror is also part of a larger plan to rejuvenate the 50-year-old telescope. “While it is the oldest telescope on the mountain, there are still new tricks we’re teaching it to make it a world-class facility,” says Chun.

The new mirror, in combination with the Robo-AO-2 adaptive optics system being deployed by UH astronomer and co-primary investigator Christoph Baranec, will enable the UH 2.2-meter telescope to deliver images comparable in resolution to the Hubble Space Telescope.

“We know Maunakea can provide the best images in the world and we’re positioning [this] telescope to do this routinely,” says Baranec.


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