Observatory celebrates two decades of discoveries

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Guests get a tour of the detector lab Wednesday during the Subaru Telescope’s 20th anniversary celebration at its base facility in Hilo.

From finding exoplanets to observing the collision of neutron stars, the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea has given its scientists much to boast about during the past 20 years.

And its mission of expanding the horizon of human knowledge is far from over.

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Michitoshi Yoshida, director of the telescope operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, said new instruments are being developed, including a camera that can capture the light spectrum of 2,400 objects at once.

Collecting data about large patches of the universe is something in which Subaru has excelled.

He said the new camera, which could be operational in 2022, and an ultra widefield camera specializing in the infrared wavelength slated for launch in 2026 will keep expanding the 8.2-meter telescope’s capabilities.

The wideview cameras also will be useful when the Thirty Meter Telescope becomes operational in about a decade, assuming construction proceeds.

Yoshida told those attending a 20-year anniversary celebration Wednesday evening at the telescope’s Hilo base facility that the much larger TMT, of which Japan is a partner, will be able to follow up on Subaru’s observations with more precision.

“Subaru has the capability of widefield observation, and Subaru looks at a very wide field of the universe,” he said. “So, on the other hand, TMT has a very high sensitivity and high spatial resolution. So TMT can do detailed study of a specific object.

“This is a very good combination.”

The celebration was co-hosted by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii.

Steve Ueda, chamber president, said Subaru has been a good community partner.

“It really gives us a sense of pride and feeling that something really good is happening on the island,” he said. “It’s really tremendous to have Subaru on the island.”

The Gemini telescope also achieved first light in 1999. Subaru and Gemini were the last optical telescopes to be built on Maunakea.

The mountain is prized by astronomers and Native Hawaiians, some of whom consider it sacred.

Protests against the latest observatory — TMT — halted construction a few years ago. Construction is anticipated to resume this year.

Yoshida said Subaru employs 92 people in Hilo. Most are local hires.

During a tour of the Hilo base facility, Russell Kackley, a software engineer, said it makes him proud to be part of the telescope’s discoveries. One discovery the team at Subaru hopes is around the corner is confirmation of a ninth planet that might exist in the outer solar system.

“I’d tell my kids, my grandkids about it,” Kackley said. “It’s a huge team effort.”

Construction took place in the 1990s, and Yoshida recognized three workers who were killed during a fire in the dome.

“I express my sincere condolences to the victims,” he said. “We must not forget that Subaru stands on top of their sacrifice.”

In the years ahead, Subaru also hopes to explore the nature of dark matter and energy, galaxy formation and biomarkers for planets in other solar systems, Yoshida said.

During the past two decades, he said, the telescope has performed about 3,600 nights of observing and produced 1,947 scientific papers.

Yoshida, who worked in Hilo for Subaru during the telescope’s development in the 1990s, said its accomplishments have exceeded his expectations.

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“I didn’t imagine the kind of progress that has been achieved,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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