Dome sweet dome

Thursday, May 5th, 2011
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North Hawaii News

W.M. Keck Observatory’s mission is summed up in one sentence — “To advance the frontiers of astronomy and share our discoveries with the world.”

They did just that last Thursday as a group of students from Hawaii Preparatory Academy had a unique opportunity to see the inner workings of one of the world’s most important telescopes.

The group — made up of all seniors — were members of Gary Jarvill’s astronomy class. They gathered at Mauna Kea Visitor Center to not only become acclimated to the high attitude but to meet with Keck officials.

“This is the cutting edge of astronomy and we have it here in our own backyard,” Jarvill said of Keck. “To not take advantage of what our community has to offer would mean you’re really missing out.”

Jarvill said his astronomy class does not use text books. Instead, each student picks a topic. From there they create an educational poster, a Power Point presentation and a handout on their topic. They then teach their peers what they learned as well as give a presentation to students at the lower campus. In addition, each student comes up with 30 test questions based on his/her topic. From there, Jarvill picks from the nearly 500 questions (17 students in the class) for the semester exam.

“This is the best place in the world for this type of thing and this trip really ties together everything they’ve been learning,” he said.

In describing what they do, Keck’s website states, “From the summit of Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano, astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory probe the local and distant Universe with unprecedented power and precision.

Their instruments are the twin Keck telescopes-the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes. Each telescope stands eight stories tall, weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. The telescopes’ primary mirrors are 10 meters in diameter and are each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii Island is surrounded by thousands of miles of thermally stable seas. The 13,796-foot Mauna Kea summit has no nearby mountain ranges to roil the upper atmosphere. Few city lights pollute Hawaiian night skies, and for most of the year, the atmosphere above Mauna Kea is clear, calm and dry.”

While at the visitor center, the class met with Dr. Grant Hill, Keck’s site supervisor, who discussed gamma ray bursts. Following his 45-minute talk, the group carpooled the eight miles to the summit. Once there, the students were ushered into the control room for Keck I followed by a close-up look inside the dome of Keck II.

“It was awesome. I’m so glad I took this class,” said senior Michael Severino.

And the most awesome part?

“The telescope itself,” he said. “Seeing it from school, it looks so small. But once you get inside, you realize it’s huge. It was a great experience — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Classmate Dean Macy agreed.

“It was amazing,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to go up there. It was pretty cool.

“A lot of what we do is project work so it’s great to see something like this in person. I’m certainly going to look at my work differently now.”

Like his students, Jarvill was impressed with what they saw.

“I think it was very inspirational and educational,” he said.

Upon returning, Hill said he was pleased with how things went during the tour.

“I feel it’s part of our mandate to educate the public, with students in particular,” he said. “In general, I enjoy talking about astronomy and I don’t get to do that as much these days.”

He said it was the first group of high school students they’ve hosted on the summit in nearly two years.

“We really like to do this and feel it’s a good thing to do,” Hill said. “At the same token, kids are more prone to medical issues on the summit than adults. So, we’re really concerned about doing it too often and having them up there too long. That’s why we were only up there for about 30 minutes.”

In regard to Keck’s importance and its proximity to schools like HPA, Hill summed things up by adding, “Say you’re an art student. It would be like having the Louvre down the road.”

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