Hawaii Quake Damages Special Telescopes
Thursday, October 19, 2006; 1:40 PM
HONOLULU -- The massive jolt that rocked Hawaii damaged some of the world's most advanced equipment for gazing into outer space.
Scientists at many of the 13 telescopes atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island, are still examining their implements to gauge the extent of the problems. Many have suspended their celestial observations to inspect equipment for flaws.
Christian Veillet, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said an encoder _ a device enabling astronomers to keep track of what part of the sky they are looking at _ had a chunk taken out of it when Sunday's magnitude 6.7 earthquake lifted his telescope up and down.
"That device has been smashed and crushed by the telescope at the time of the main shake," Veillet said. "It looks like you took some butter out of it with your knife, and it's really solid steel we are talking about."
Veillet said his crew is rebuilding an encoder assembly with spare parts. At the earliest, Veillet said his telescope would be operational again at the end of the week.
The Canada-France-Hawaii telescope's mirror and all of its optics emerge unscathed. Its digital camera _ the biggest in the world _ was also fine, he said.
Still, his team hasn't finished checking for damage and it's too early to say to what extent the telescope was affected by the quake, Veillet said.
Mauna Kea's ideal conditions for observing space have attracted some of the most technologically advanced telescopes on the planet to its slopes.
The mountain's 13,796-foot elevation gives the telescopes a clearer picture by lifting them above a great deal of weather. Mauna Kea's location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also offers clear air because there are no nearby mountain ranges to disrupt the atmosphere.
Two of the more famous telescopes on the peak, at the W.M. Keck Observatory, also took hits in the jolt, the most powerful to strike Hawaii in 20 years.
The Keck telescopes' mirrors and optics are fine, but the radial pads and brakes that support the 300-ton structures on their mounts must be removed and replaced, said Laura Kinoshita, an observatory spokeswoman.
She said inspection showed the telescopes came down on the radial pads and brakes with about 100,000 pounds of force during Sunday's temblor.
Once these are replaced, the Keck's engineers will have to recalibrate both telescopes to account for the seismic shifts that moved the Keck I telescope more than 1/8 inch and the Keck II telescope more than one inch, Kinoshita said.
That's because the observatory relies on software to tell instruments where in the sky the telescope is pointed, based on the telescope's previous location.
"In astronomy, even a movement by a few nanometers makes a significant impact on the accuracy of our systems," Kinoshita said. "So we need to update our systems to factor in the new position of the telescope."
Like many of the telescopes on Mauna Kea, data obtained through the Keck's telescopes _ the largest fully functional optical telescopes in the world _ have significantly advanced astronomy.
Scientists using the Keck telescopes found a majority of known planets orbiting stars other than our sun. They also proved there is a black hole in the middle of our Milky Way Galaxy.
Peter Michaud, a spokesman for the Gemini Observatory, said his facility's biggest problem was testing the equipment to make sure the telescope survived the quake OK. Some have compared the task to setting up a new telescope.
So far, though, the Gemini Northern Telescope appeared to have no problems, he said.
The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility also appears to be in good shape.
Allen Tokunaga, its director, said his astronomers were able to operate their telescope normally when they tried it Tuesday.
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