Keck telescopes to undergo major cleaning

By Yunji de Nies
Published On: Feb 17 2014 08:09:00 PM HST

The Keck Observatory on the Big Island is on the cutting edge of astronomy. In fact, it is the most scientifically productive telescope on the planet.

WAIMEA, Hawaii -

The Keck Observatory on the Big Island is on the cutting edge of astronomy. In fact, it is the most scientifically productive telescope on the planet. That means more scientific papers are published thanks to the Keck telescopes than any other telescope.

Click here to watch Yunji de Nies report.

But since its construction 20 years ago, the Keck telescopes have aged and engineers are preparing to do something that could make a lot of folks nervous. Essentially, engineers will take the heart of the telescopes apart to make sure researchers can keep churning out discoveries.

It is hard to overstate just how important the twin Keck telescopes that sit atop Mauna Kea are to scientific discovery in space.

"They are the largest telescopes in the world, and they can see further back in time than any other telescope that we have. For a lot of us, access to these telescopes is basically the lifeblood of our research," said Professor Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University.

The heart of that lifeblood are the giant mirrors - 36 in each telescope - in large hexagonal segments that fit together and then move as a giant single unit to capture light millions of light years away.

"The mirror captures the light, sends it to instruments and then the instruments are like your digital camera that captures the light and makes a picture," said van Dokkum.

But for those pictures to be useful, those mirrors have to be perfectly aligned and pristine. And after 20 years, they need some TLC.

"It's sort of like having glasses that aren't at the right prescription. Things will get blurry. In order to see things with as much detail and see things that are really faint, you have to have that prescription. Be as perfect as possible," said Rich Matsuda, Senior Manager for Operations and Infrastructure at the Keck Observatory.

Matsuda is in charge of what they are calling the "Segment Renewal Project"; a somewhat bland name for a high stakes job.

When they built the telescopes in 1993, they did not anticipate the glue that holds the mirrors in place to deteriorate. Each panel has to be taken off and inspected, some re-glued, but all put perfectly back together.

It makes one wonder if this was always part of the plan.

"Well, these are the first, basically prototypes that nobody had ever tried to build before. No one knew how long they would last," said Matsuda.

In Waimea, the engineers are building a special lab where Matsuda and his team will spend months practicing the process of taking apart the telescopes. The team cannot get the process wrong because each panel is truly priceless.

"They're basically irreplaceable because of the technology used to make them," said Matsuda. "There were special facilities built at the time to produce the mirrors that no longer exist."

One of the most challenging parts of the project was figuring out how to get those large, delicate pieces of glass from the summit and down the bumpy road to the lab. Researchers answered that by engineering a special truck -- changing the suspension and building a contraption to make sure each piece gets up and down the summit safely.

When all of the mirrors are put back together, a laser will check their work because there is no room for error.

"Imagine our 10-meter Keck primary mirror. If you made it the size of the Big Island….the amount of imperfection in the surface is less than the thickness of a credit card. And that's really amazing," said Matsuda.

The pressure for perfection seems high for these researchers, but they seem to take it in stride.

"We do make mistakes all the time. The trick is to learn from them and apply that lesson into the next thing you do. That's how we got here in the first place. People made tons of mistakes and tried different things to get to this amazing technology," said Matsuda. "If you're too conservative, you'll never get to the edge of what is possible."

As if it wasn't hard enough, there is a tricky part to the process. Since so many scientists rely on Keck for their research, engineers cannot shut it down while they do these repairs. So they have to do this complicated dance of taking one mirror out at a time and replacing it with a spare. The team has a few of those to use until they bring back the originals.

The whole process is expected to take up to five years.

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