Saturday, February 18, 2012

Closure Looms for Keck's Interferometer

Early on February 11th, as dawn's rosy glow enveloped the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the domes of the Keck telescopes slid shut after a long night of observing. It had been a great run for Gerard van Belle (Lowell Observatory) and his small team. They'd used the two giant eyes together, pointing them in tandem at a handful of dim, cool dwarf stars scattered across the Hawaiian sky.

Keck's twin telescopes
Light from the Keck Observatory's twin 33-foot (10-M) telescopes can be combined to create the world's most sensitive optical interferometer. But funding for the system will end in mid-2012.
NASA / R. Wainscoat
By carefully combining light beams from both telescopes, the observers had effectively transformed the two 33-foot-wide (10-m) primary mirrors into a single, much larger aperture 280 feet (85 m) across. This powerful pairing, called an interferometer, can discern the shape of a grape from 1,000 miles away. It enabled van Belle to resolve the disks of a few of his target stars — a feat not possible anywhere else.

Unfortunately, last week's all-nighter will be his team's final chance to harness the telescopes together. Last summer NASA managers quietly decided to stop funding the interferometer, and it will be mothballed in July. After that, the two Keck telescopes — which had been designed from the get-go to work together — will stare into the cosmic depths on completely separate schedules.


Glenn A. Walsh, Project Director,
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