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Multiple Science Fair Winner Finally Tours MKO

by Roy Gal, IfA Astronomer and Outreach Coordinator

Travis Le and the Gemini North telescope

Travis Le and the Gemini North telescope. Photo by Roy Gal.

Each year, the IfA offers a special tour of Mauna Kea Observatories to the student with the best high school astronomy project at the Hawai‘i State Science and Engineering Fair. Travis Le of Punahou School won that prize for four straight years beginning in 2009. One problem, though: You must be at least 16 years old to go to the nearly 14,000-foot summit, and when he first qualified, Le was too young.

This past summer, Le finally had the opportunity to take advantage of his award. On August 28, he and I flew to Hilo and then drove to Hale Pōhaku, the mid-level facility where astronomers eat and sleep. After lunch and a safety briefing, it was up to the summit for a detailed look at the Gemini North telescope. Donning our hard hats, we saw the massive chamber where the 8-meter-diameter primary mirror is aluminized, the control rooms, the dome, and of course, the telescope itself.

After a brief rest at Hale Pōhaku, we returned to Gemini to view the night’s observing. We watched as the enormous vent doors silently opened around the dome and the open shutter revealed the sky. The telescope crew led us up a set of stairs, where we peered over a railing as the accordion-like mirror cover slid open, revealing the curved, reflective surface at the heart of the telescope. With some time to spare, the crew spun the telescope and dome for us, tilting the behemoth almost to the horizon so we could see the full extent of the mirror. On the back side of the mirror, we saw the suite of instruments that gives Gemini its ability to make different types of observations throughout the night simply by rotating a small mirror to send light to the appropriate device.

It was the first night of an observing run, and with cirrus clouds in the sky, taking good data was a challenge. We watched the three-person observing team controlling the telescope and instruments for about an hour before heading back down to Hale Pōhaku for a night’s sleep.

The next morning, we visited NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), which is operated by the IfA. Lars Bergknut, a long-time technician at the telescope, demonstrated every aspect of the IRTF and regaled us with stories of the telescope’s history. We also took a peek at one of the Keck telescopes from the visitor gallery.

So how did Le win all those awards? During the summer of 2008, he participated in HI STAR, a summer program sponsored by the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute that trains middle and high school students to perform astronomical research under the mentorship of IfA scientists. As a high school freshman in 2009, Le worked with IfA’s Education and Outreach Specialist JD Armstrong and postdoctoral fellow John Johnson on a project that studied an extrasolar planet. It won both the astronomy award and third place in the Senior Research category. His sophomore project compared two exoplanet systems (mentors: Armstrong and postdoctoral fellow Beth Biller). As a junior, he discovered four previously unknown hot spots on the Sun, as well as a way to predict their activity. This data can be used to protect astronauts and satellites from solar flares and coronal mass ejections. His senior project was “A Neural Network Approach to Forecasting Geomagnetic Storms.” IfA solar physicist Ilia Roussev was his mentor for both his junior and senior projects.

At the International Science and Engineering Fair on the mainland, Le’s freshman project received the American Association of Physics Teachers prize, and in 2011 his junior project placed fourth in the Physics category.

If you are interested in learning more about HI STAR, contact Mary Kadooka (