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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 9, 2002

UH to plan asteroid telescope

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy will design the world's most powerful telescope for seeking out asteroids that could hit the Earth.

A telescope to be designed by the UH Institute for Astronomy would help detect asteroids that pose a danger to Earth, as in this artist’s concept of catastrophe.


Air Force Research Laboratories awarded the institute $3.4 million for the first year of work in developing its Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS.

"What we're trying to do is catalogue all of the asteroids that come near us" and may be threats to the planet, said astronomer Nicholas Kaiser, the principal investigator on the project.

The Air Force wants the telescope in operation by 2006. Kaiser said that to accomplish that, astronomers expect to design a system with four smaller telescopes rather than a single large one. A big scope would take much longer to build and would be more expensive, he said.

The astronomy community looks at the threat from near-Earth asteroids as rare but very real. Pan-STARRS could give the planet a few decades notice before an impact — time to potentially destroy or nudge them out of a path that threatens the Earth. It would provide time to develop a response —which has been envisioned as anything from blowing the asteroid up to using a nuclear charge to alter its course.

"It's kind of a kick to finally be doing something that might have an impact on humanity," Kaiser said.

His boss, institute director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, was similarly enthusiastic about applying astronomy to down-to-earth problems.

"These asteroids are really a threat," Kudritzki said. In an Institute for Astronomy press release yesterday, scientists estimated the risk of dying in an asteroid strike as roughly equivalent to the risk of dying in an airplane crash.

Scientists have not yet determined whether they'll want to put the telescope array on the Big Island's Mauna Kea or Maui's Haleakala. If it's on Mauna Kea, one plan is to put it in an existing building next to the University of Hawai'i's 88-inch telescope—so there would be no new groundwork.

On the Web:

University of Hawai'i: www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~kaiser/pan-starrs/pressrelease/


Kudritzki said the Institute for Astronomy is working with the Office of Mauna Kea Management on design review under the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan.

One of the reasons the Hawai'i institution was selected for the telescope design is its world leadership in the design and construction of instruments — in this case an enormous light detector capable of processing a billion data points, he said.

Pan-STARRS will take hundreds of images nightly, and will cover the entire night sky every 10 days. Over time, it will separate those objects that don't move, like distant stars, from those that do, such as asteroids and comets.

Special attention will be paid to big asteroids, particularly those a mile or more in diameter, which could cause global catastrophes, Kudritzki said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.