Institute for Astronomy Home
IFA Home Page   |    Search   |    Other Editions    No. 52 - 2014 
  All Articles  


Refurbishment of the UH Telescopes on Maunakea

by Colin Aspin, Director, UH 2.2-meter telescope, and Louise Good

2.2-meter telescope

Bob Calder, 2.2-meter senior electronics engineer, starting the process of washing the telescope’s primary mirror.  Photo by Colin Aspin.

Built with money from NASA to support its solar system missions and largely funded by NASA for many years, the UH 2.2-meter (88-inch) telescope was the largest telescope on Maunakea, the eighth largest optical telescope in the world, and one of the first professional telescopes controlled by a computer when it became operational in 1970. Now nearly 45 years old, this venerable telescope is in need of major repairs and upgrades if it is going to continue to serve UH faculty and students.

Built on Maunakea in the early 2000s to support the UH Hilo undergraduate astronomy program, the 0.6-meter (24-inch) Hōkū Ke‘a (Southern Cross) telescope has never really worked optimally. With the establishment of an undergraduate program at Mānoa, the two campuses have agreed to a joint development plan for both telescopes. Under this plan, undergraduate and graduate students from both campuses will have access to both telescopes.

Recent system failures at the 2.2-meter have included a leaking dome hydraulic drive and the failure of the right ascension (RA) drive. (RA is the astronomical equivalent of longitude on Earth, so that drive enables the telescope to point and track targets around the sky.)  Other areas of concern include the dome shutter motors, which must be replaced; the windscreen, which has been nonfunctioning for many years; the declination (latitude) drive, which if not overhauled may fail as the RA drive did; and the mirror covers, which must be replaced. The telescope control software runs on a 1998-vintage Pentium 2 computer and will not run on modern hardware, so an entirely new set of software and hardware must be created. Other work to be done includes purchasing a large-capacity uninterruptible power supply system, painting the dome silver, re-aluminizing the telescope mirrors, installing new (electric) dome drives, repairing the water and electrical systems and the building itself (part of the roof leaks), installing new chillers for the AC system to improve the seeing of the telescope, and adding a rotatable tertiary mirror to facilitate instrument changes.

Funding has been acquired to make the necessary repairs and upgrades on both telescopes. The State of Hawai‘i Capital Improvements Project fund has allocated $2.5 million for the work, and UH Mānoa Facilities has promised about $2.5 million in deferred maintenance and capital renewal funds. The UH vice president for research and innovation and the UH Mānoa vice chancellor for research have each allocated $70,000 that IfA matched with money from the UH Foundation Lumb Family Fund.

Astronomer Colin Aspin, the UH 2.2-meter telescope director, has received a four-year NASA grant of $1.6 million to improve the 2.2-meter telescope’s efficiency in recovering near-Earth objects discovered by another UH facility, Pan-STARRS on Haleakalā, Maui. This grant will pay for a new CCD camera (2014), and support 10 percent of the observing time, as well as a postdoctoral fellow and a graduate student, for three years (2015–17). Where the funds to support the rest of day-to-day operations of the 2.2-meter telescope will come from is far from clear. The main source of operational funding has been a spectroscopic survey of nearby supernovae, which is now almost complete.

IfA now has a contract with Summit Kinetics, a company based in Waikoloa, Hawai‘i, to create a new telescope control system for the 2.2-meter based on distributed micro-controllers.  This should be completed by the summer/fall 2015.  Also, plans are in the works to operate the telescope fully robotically, which will increase observational efficiency, since no human interaction will be required.

Plans call for the current Hōkū Ke‘a telescope to be replaced by a CDK700 0.7 Meter (28-inch) Observatory Telescope System made by PlaneWave Instruments in a dome made by Ash-Dome that is robust enough to withstand the severe weather conditions atop Maunakea.  It is hoped that this telescope will be fully operational in late 2015.