Institute for Astronomy Home
IFA Home Page   |    Search   |    Other Editions    No. 15 - 2005 
  All Articles  


Staff Profile: Peter Onaka

by Robert Joseph, Faculty Chair

Peter Onaka kayaking off of Kualoa on the windward side of Oahu.

Peter Onaka joined the IfA in 1990 as an electronics engineer for the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF). He has specialized in development of complex electronics systems for processing signals from infrared detector arrays. The infrared array readout systems he has designed are faster, and have lower noise, than any of the other half-dozen systems in the world. They are now used at the IRTF and the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, and soon will be in use at the Gemini South telescope in Chile; on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a telescope built into a 747 airplane; and at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Onaka was born and raised in Honolulu, and he attended Iolani School. His father was a civilian personnel officer with the U.S. military, and so the family also spent time in Okinawa, Thailand, and Korea. He received his electrical engineering degree from UH Manoa in 1984. While a UH student, he worked as an assistant in the IfA electronics shop.

After graduation, Onaka took a job with Boeing Aerospace in Seattle, where he designed electronics for space applications and for airplanes. After several years in Seattle, he was eager to return to Hawaii, and found a position with Intelect, where he worked on air traffic control switches and telecommunications. While at Intelect, Onaka became a co-holder of a patent for a distributed switching and telephone conferencing system.

Onaka's major focus is now on the cameras that will be used by the Pan-STARRS telescopes to search for asteroids that may collide with Earth. He is leading the design team for the detector electronics for these cameras, which have gigapixel detector arrays, making them the largest astronomical cameras ever built. They present enormous technical challenges, since there are one billion detectors in each array, and each detector must be read out in less than one millionth of a second.

Onaka enjoys water sports, especially windsurfing. When the wind dies down, you might find him kayaking on Oahu's south shore. He is also a talented amateur chef, and his friends and co-workers say he produces, among other things, the best ceviche any of them has ever tasted.

Onaka lives in Honolulu with his wife, Janice, and his daughter, Lauren, a student at Iolani School.