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A Day in the Life of IfA’s Maui Laboratories


The Advanced Technology Research Center.

The laboratories at IfA’s Advanced Technology Research Center (ATRC) on Maui are one of IfA’s best-kept secrets. Opened in September 2007, the ATRC (also called Maikalani) is a unique Hawai‘i facility for the design and construction of advanced instrumentation for remote sensing (the study of objects or phenomena from a distance using light).

Located in Pukalani, less than an hour from the summit of Haleakalā, the ATRC was designed to fulfill both the needs of the IfA, which anticipated that the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) would be built on Maui and would need instruments, and of the local high-tech community, which helps the Air Force develop new instruments for its telescopes on Haleakalā. The State of Hawai‘i provided funding for the construction, and competitive grants from the Air Force provided several million dollars that were matched with state capital funding for the sophisticated laboratory equipment. The goal was to provide a powerful resource for advanced microfabrication (the miniaturization of technical components), metrology (the scientific study of measurement), and optical testing. These laboratories are used by the local Maui technology community, and have been important for attracting several millions of dollars in other instrument projects to the IfA.

Ryan Swindle and polarimeter
Graduate student Ryan Swindle calibrating the all-sky polarimeter at the ATRC.

A group of four laboratory workspaces are linked to an outdoor coelostat, a device with a computer-controlled mirror that directs solar, stellar, or other light into these labs. Each of these is equipped with optical tables and mounts, as well as a variety of other complex tools for developing scientific instrumentation.

In the first workroom, which houses the detector lab and a precision laser cutting machine, IfA astronomer Haosheng Lin is developing a spectrograph for the National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, while Masato Kagitani (a scientist from Tohoku University, Japan, here on a year-long visit) is using the laser system to build fiber bundle arrays for imaging spectroscopy and polarimetry. He is developing instrumentation for the PLANETS project (a new telescope that will search for planets outside our solar system) and SOLARC (a prototype telescope for ATST) on the summit of Haleakalā.

In the second workroom, IfA postdoctoral researcher David Harrington and IfA astronomer Jeff Kuhn are working on a novel precision polarimeter using fast liquid crystals and charge-shifting detectors. Harrington competes for lab space with IfA scientist Joe Ritter, who is using a different kind of liquid crystal to control futuristic membrane mirror shapes. This lab also houses the optics for a nighttime telescope made of ultrathin glass that Stan Truitt (IfA adjunct optical scientist) and Ritter have been optically testing, and that will soon move to an existing observatory on the Haleakalā summit.

In lab 3, graduate student Ryan Swindle is building a precise all-sky polarimeter for use with several telescopes on the summit of Haleakalā. Here he is also characterizing an infrared camera that is set up in this lab for eventual spectropolarimetry experiments with SOLARC. Swindle and Kagitani (with Kuhn) are also preparing their detectors and fiber-bundle imaging experiments for the upcoming transit of Venus.

In lab 4, graduate student Dani Atkinson is using the coelostat for her novel polarimetry experiment that will make ultrasensitive planetary polarization observations. She competes with three other experiments for coelostat time: Jon Valliant (UH Maui College engineering student) is working on a daylight imaging project, an attempt to image satellites during the day. Its purpose is to keep track of satellites and “space junk” that may harm our satellites or the International Space Station, or come crashing down to Earth. IfA astronomer Stuart Jefferies is debugging a novel solar oscillation instrument designed to solve the mystery of the temperature structure of our star. Kuhn is measuring sunlight at far-infrared wavelengths using the Fourier transform spectrometer, an instrument used for high-resolution spectroscopy, located in lab 3, to find ways of seeing cold molecular solar “dark matter.”

These are just some of the novel optical technology developments that are ongoing at the ATRC, and in future issues of this newsletter, we hope to explain some of them in more detail.


Spectroscopy: The branch of science concerned with measuring spectra produced when matter interacts with or emits electromagnetic radiation. For more information, see issue no. 37 of this newsletter.

Spectrograph:  A device for dispersing light into a spectrum so that the intensity of each wavelength can be recorded.

Polarimeter: An instrument for measuring the polarization of light (polarimetry), which is the phenomenon in which light waves vibrate in a preferred plane or planes, or the process of confining the vibrations to certain planes.

Imaging spectroscopy and spectropolarimetry: The use of sensitive measurements of both the spectroscopic and polarization properties of light to reveal properties of the light’s source or point of last scattering. An imaging system combines these measurements with an instrument that can distinguish the properties of distinct image points.

The editor wishes to thank Jeff Kuhn and all the other IfA staff members at the ATRC who contributed to this article.