Deep Impact

When Nick Kaiser won a whopping contract to build an asteroid-spotting telescope, he also created a high-tech bonanza for Hawaii

January, 2004

An asteroid with a diameter of half-a-mile has about a 1-in-700 chance of striking the Earth in the next century. A direct hit would likely cost 100 million lives and could plunge the planet into a new Ice Age, as well as cause mass extinctions. It is University of Hawaii astronomer Nick Kaiser’s job to spot approaching asteroid doom and give early warning.

Kaiser is the principal investigator in an innovative project that aims to create the most comprehensive map to date of the trajectories of asteroids and other so-called “near-Earth objects” (NEOs) in the skies. Funded by the U.S. Air Force to create an asteroid early-warning system, the $50-million project is dubbed Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System). The system could spot Earth-bound asteroids as close as a year or so away, but Kaiser says the undetected existence of such asteroids is remote due to the already intense scrutiny of near-Earth skies. However, in all likelihood, the telescope should be able to provide a warning when NEOs are decades away.

Aside from creating the best star-mapping system ever, Pan-STARRS will also provide a considerable boost to Hawaii’s high-tech sector, far beyond astronomy. “Maui High Performance Computing Center is hiring like crazy to get people up to speed on this,” says Kaiser.

While the UH’s Institute For Astronomy (IFA) will direct the project, the Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC) will handle the massive computing power required to process nightly downloads of star maps snapped by Pan-STARRS. The downloads are expected to clock in at 10 terabytes per night, an enormous sum, equal to the data capacity of hundreds of personal-computer hard drives, each evening when the skies are sufficiently dark for observations. IFA has contracted with Science Applications International Corp., a tech-integration and -services firm, to build a database that can handle such a massive volume of information and retrieve it with a decent amount of speed – something that only a supercomputer like MHPCC could achieve. At some point, the data will be available to anyone who wants to look at it on the Internet, making Pan-STARRS a stellar educational and research tool for aspiring young astronomers.

Kaiser has also tapped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to build the charge-coupled devices (CCDs) that will be the eyes of Pan-STARR. These are specialized semiconductors used in light-sensitive electronic devices such as digital cameras.

Rather than a single large telescope, Kaiser plans to use four smaller ones, each with a 1.8-meter mirror (for comparison, the largest scope on Mauna Kea with a single-piece mirror measures 9 meters in diameter). Using specialized computer software to overlay the images taken by each telescope, Pan-STARRS will correct for errors in any of the individual units. Taking a picture of the sky every 30 seconds, the system will scan the entire visible night sky several times each working evening. It can do this, because Pan-STARRS takes extremely wide images, compared to other telescopes. These wide images allow Pan-STARRS to search for fleeting objects that might pass in and out of the visible night sky in a single evening.

The smaller scopes and innovative CCD designs, which pack four times as many photo-sensitive cells as existing high-powered CCD devices, will allow Kaiser to build his baby at a considerable cost savings. Other projects aiming to accomplish similar tasks have been priced at well over $100 million. “It’s a cheap and efficient way to do what we want to do, which is see as much of the sky and as many faint objects as possible each night.” That’s necessary,y because fast-moving NEOs can quickly disappear from the visible sky. Telescopes with longer exposure times, covering less of the night sky each night, won’t catch as many of them, Kaiser explains. The four telescopes could end up atop Mauna Kea or Haleakala, though Kaiser is leaning toward Maui for cost savings associated with not having to rent a very big fiber-optic data connection to move the nightly downloads from the Big Island to the MHPCC.

The IFA manages all project monies. Although millions of dollars will go to MIT and the SAIC, most of the funds will stay at UH. Pan-STARRS could end up creating dozens of high-tech jobs in everything from software programming to optical design to basic computer system administration. Currently it is the biggest single grant for the Institute for Astronomy and one of the largest at UH. Pan-STARRS also will represent a sizeable chunk of the $145 million in estimated annual expenditures that flow out of astronomical research in Hawaii. “This is exactly the kind of program that we need and that benefits the state and the university the most. There is technology around it. People build things like advanced instruments. They do software development around it,” says UH Manoa Chancellor Peter Englert, who believes Pan-STARRS and other big space projects tend to spawn other big projects.

Ultimately, Pan-STARRS should prove to be much more than a mere asteroid early warning system. Dark-matter experts are eager to get their hands on Pan-STARRS surveys to study the distribution of this mysterious phenomenon in the cosmos. Planet finders looking for extra-solar worlds could use Pan-STARR images to spot faraway planets by noting the faint darkening of a star when a planet passes before it. Equally important, Pan-STARRS will spot interesting and hard-to-find astronomical phenomenon in action and help direct larger scopes to the right location to study these happenings in greater detail. “There are many, many possible uses,” says Kaiser.

In less celestial settings, the different types of work that go into making Pan-STARRS could spin off commercially useful intellectual property. Adaptive optics systems and software used to minimize errors in images captured by telescopes could assist in all sorts of other tasks, such as building systems to better spot cancer cells, something that scientists in the Netherlands are already pursuing, with software used in European telescopes. The software used to manage the massive quantities of data and enhance its flow could provide lessons to builders of big-data switches and massive data storage hardware equipment designed to hold such minutiae as millions of medical records or credit-card transactions. Pan-STARRS is due to be completed and operational sometime in 2006. Of course, finding an asteroid with Mother Earth’s name on it might be worth something, too.

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