Spaced Out

January, 2004

Due in part to its proximity to Mauna Kea and Haleakala, two of the premier stargazing peaks on the planet, the University of Hawaii has built a stellar reputation, with loads of world-class researchers constantly making discoveries in space sciences. Naturally, the UH also hauls in big research bucks for these endeavors. The Institute for Astronomy (IFA) brought in more than $22 million in 2003. Here’s a look at some of the biggest bangs in the UH galaxy.

Predicting Solar Weather ($1.3 million NASA grant): IFA professor Jeff Kuhn leads an effort to observe solar flares, winds in the sun’s outer atmosphere and other phenomena that sometimes send strong magnetic pulses toward Earth. These pulses can disrupt communications gear and electronic equipment. The grant is part of an ongoing effort to build a more viable astronomy infrastructure on Maui.

Studying Water and Life in the Universe ($5 million NASA grant): IFA professor Karen Meech leads a team of chemists, biologists, geologists and astronomers, who will search for and study water around the universe to better understand how it may have led to life on Earth and possibly in other places. This is one of the larger cross-disciplinary efforts at the UH in the sciences, a growing trend in investigating complex issues. The UH joins a handful of other teams receiving extremely competitive grants from the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Spotting Killer Asteroids ($50 million Air Force Research Laboratory grant): IFA professor Nick Kaiser is designing a state-of-the-art system to scan the skies for asteroids that might hit Earth. (See related story on pg. 18). The project will produce a complex of several small telescopes that can collectively locate objects 100 times fainter than current asteroid-spotting telescopes, and should be able to identify near-Earth objects as small as 300 kilometers across, with 99 percent accuracy. Kaiser and his co-researchers will also use the Maui High Performance Computing Center’s supercomputer to process the huge amount of data captured by the telescopes.

Putting the Eyes in the Next Space Telescope ($6.4 million NASA grant): IFA professor and former director Don Hall led this amazing project to build an infrared camera and detection instrument designed to withstand -400°F temperatures in a distant orbit upon the next-generation NASA space telescope. That scope should be launched within 10 years. With a Hilo-based team, Hall worked alongside Rockwell Scientific and local company GL Scientific to construct a 16-megapixel, infrared camera using 2” x 2” silicon wafers, some of largest ever used in digital imaging. The camera is far more powerful than the 1-megapixel instruments prevalent today. The first one is running on Mauna Kea atop the UH’s 2.2 meter telescope on Mauna Kea.

Looking for Origins of the Big Bang ($35 million NASA grant finalist): A finalist for the largest space science grant for a single project ever awarded to the UH, physics and astronomy professor Peter Gorham devised an ingenious way to detect super high-energy neutrino particles passing through the Earth by listening for radio emissions akin to those resulting from lightning strikes. These emissions theoretically should occur as the particles pass through the Antarctic ice cap. Gorham is designing an enormous ultra-high altitude balloon, equipped with dozens of detection antennae to float above Antartica for the ANITA (Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna) project. No one has yet successfully detected this type of neutrino.

Mapping the World’s Coral Reefs ($2 million Department of Defense grant):Planetary science professor Paul Lucey and marine biologist Marlin Atkinson are designing a special camera to be placed on the International Space Station in late 2004 that will map the 500,000 square kilometers of coral reefs around the world by measuring light wavelengths reflected off the ocean floor and surface. The project will represent UH Manoa’s first instrument on the ISS.

Studying the Red Planet ($700,000, various): Researchers from the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences at Manoa are looking into a variety of phenomena on Mars, including the formation of planetary crust, characteristics of Martian volcanoes and impact craters on Mars. The UH is one of a handful of institutions with extensive expertise in Mars geologic research.

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Alex Salkever