Hunting The Secrets Of The Universe In Pajamas, Astronomers Go Back To Work

May 18, 2020

Hawaii Island’s 12 observatories have been cleared to resume operations by state officials. With travel largely on hold, many observations will now be made from home.

Both state and county authorities in Hawaii have begun relaxing lockdown restrictions that closed many businesses statewide in March. One of the first industries granted permission to reopen by Governor David Ige was astronomy.


The pandemic was the second time in less than a year that Mauna Kea’s telescopes had to shut down. The first closure was during the anti-TMT protest in the summer of 2019.


Bringing the multi-million dollar telescopes back online is a lot more complicated than turning the lights on. Ivan Look, operations manager at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, told HPR that the major component of regular maintenance is replenishing the coolant that keeps astronomical instruments chilled.


“They’re so sensitive that they need to be super cold in order to provide the clear images that we need,” Look said.


Super-cold is not an exaggeration. Some observational tools are kept at temperatures as low as minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining that frigid temperature requires the use of specialized coolant that needs to be regularly replenished, sometimes daily.


If technicians can’t reliably access the summit, a telescope may be placed into a safe mode to protect the instruments from damage if they warm up. Look says re-cooling them can take a long time, as in the case of one lunar observation device.


"If that instrument was to warm up, it takes 21 days for us to get all the way back down to cold,” he noted.


The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope has a system that allows some maintenance to be done remotely, minimizing the need to send technicians to the Mauna Kea summit. Look says that capability was a major factor in allowing him to get the telescope operational within 24 hours of the governor’s announcement, although other telescopes take longer to reboot.


There have also been costs to science. Astronomers have not been “on-sky,” as they say, in almost two months, according to John O’Meara, the chief scientist at the W.M Keck Observatory in Hilo.


“We executed zero observing since the governor’s lockdown,” he noted.


Half of the major telescopes worldwide have been shut down, according to O’Meara. Some of those projects can be rescheduled, like seasonal observations of the center of the Milky Way or hunting for planets outside our solar system.


Other celestial observations may never be made up. So-called transient events happen with little to no warning and are often impossible to predict.


“A supernova goes off, and you never know when it’s going to happen. But when it happens, you want to catch it. That type of science could have been executed, but I can’t point at a specific thing,” O’Meara said.


He added those types of decisions are often made in real time, when an event occurs. A recent example is the sudden appearance of ‘Omuamua, a mysterious, cigar-shaped object from interstellar space that briefly visited our solar system in 2017.


With worldwide travel largely on hold, O’Meara says Keck has beefed up its remote-observing capability. Half of observations made by the Keck telescopes were already being conducted by astronomers operating from remote sites. But some of those sites are also closed as a result of the pandemic. So like many of us, astronomers are now learning how to work from home.


In some cases astronomers are observing on their laptops or computers at home. We colloquially call this pajama-mode observing,” O’Meara jokes.


Despite the shutdown restrictions, local observatories have been keeping busy during the lockdown. Scientists analyzed previously collected data, while summit technicians have been training on new skills and working on other projects as allowed.


One machinist with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope designed and fabricated almost 300 no-touch door openers, which were disturbed to hospital workers in Hilo.


But for now, Hawaii’s observatories are back on sky, hunting for the secrets of the universe. Sometimes in pajamas.