Join Crave's Eric Mack as he ascends to the top of the Mauna Kea volcano to visit the Keck Observatory, which houses two of the world's most high-powered telescopes.
Eyes on distant worlds
The Keck Observatory consists of two of the world's most high-powered telescopes, which sit on the summit of Hawaii's 13,800-foot Mauna Kea volcano. In recent years, the observatory has played a vital role in a number of discoveries, from distant galaxies to exoplanets in the habitable zone. Crave's Eric Mack visited recently to learn more about how Keck has come to act as mankind's binoculars.
The Keck complex atop Mauna Kea comprises Keck 1 and Keck 2, both 10-meter optical telescopes. They are connected to special equipment that links them together for possible use as a high-powered interferometer, although funding for this use has been discontinued in recent years.
A look inside one of the Keck domes. The 10-meter segmented mirrors of Keck I and Keck II are only about a foot smaller than the world's largest optical telescope, located atop a volcano half as tall as Mauna Kea in Spain's Canary Islands.
One of the Keck domes sits comfortably above a cloud bank at 13,800 feet. Cloud cover on top of the Mauna Kea volcano hinders observation less than 10 percent of the time, and the air moved across the Pacific by the trade winds is some of the cleanest and least turbulent on Earth. Given those conditions, it's easy to see why Mauna Kea is an ideal place to put the eyes of our species.
One of the Keck domes opens for observation shortly after the sun has set. Astronomers from around the world are assigned blocks of time of a few hours each evening to conduct observations either remotely with the help of Keck staff or on-site in Hawaii.
One of the Keck domes, with the Japanese Subaru 'scope next door to Keck in the background. The Keck complex includes the two telescopes, offices, equipment, and a visitors' center, all of which, taken together, fills multiple stories. The complex extends underground so as to house it all.
The operations room at Keck headquarters in Kamuela, Hawaii. The monitor on the upper left shows the control room at the summit of Mauna Kea. At the moment, only one of the telescopes can be fully controlled remotely.
The Keck telescopes use laser-guide-star adaptive optics -- which measure atmospheric interference so it can be adjusted for in the final image-- to create images of distant galaxies that are free of atmospheric distortion. This kind of clarity can only be matched by space telescopes like Hubble.
Photo by: Daniel Birchall, Subaru Telescope / NASA / Caption by:
TMT coming soon
A conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a next-generation telescope set to join the Keck telescopes on the top of Mauna Kea in the years to come. Ground breaking could begin as soon as later this year, with possible completion by 2018.
Photo by: TMT Observatory Corporation / Caption by: