Mauna Kea Milky Way Panorama, Credit & Copyright: Wally Pacholka (TWAN)

Mind-Blowing Astronomy in Hawaii

History and Current Events

For those like me who cherish space, discovery, and astronomy, Hawaii brings knowledge, capacities, and financing opportunities for you. In this article, I give an overview of the history and current state of astronomy in Hawaii.

Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO)

The University of Hawaii drives top-notch international alliances to work collaboratively at the MKO observatories, which house the world’s biggest telescopes.

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai’i, University of Hawai’i at Hilo. The building consists of three titanium coated inverted domes, representing the volcanoes Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Hualālai.

MKO observatories, located on the Big Island of Hawaii, provide some of the best astronomical observing conditions in the world. It follows that MKO observatories, together with the University of Hawaii, have been recognized as a center of excellence regarding astronomical observation and research, with innovative technology and instrumentation.

A large number of different types of telescopes operate at Mauna Kea. We can group MKO observatories into three categories:

• Optical/infrared radiation (e.g., the Gemini, Subaru, Keck, and UH Hilo observatories)

• Sub-millimeter telescopes (e.g., the Caltech observatory, James Clerk Maxwell, and the Submillimeter Array)

  • Radio wave detectors (VLBA –Very Long Baseline Array).
The Sky from Mauna Kea
Image Credit & Copyright: Shane Black Photography; Rollover Annotation: Judy Schmidt

Worthy of mention is the UH 2.2-meter telescope, operating since 1970 by faculty members of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which has led to significant breakthroughs, such as the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1990.

Research conducted with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCM) has revealed, for example, the chemistry of the interstellar medium, as well as its temperature, density, and motion.

More recently, neither the JCM telescope nor the Submillimeter Array has found dust particles in the star system KIC 84852. This fact has been subject of a heated debate about what might cause the irregular dips in brightness of KIC 8452. On top of that, Alien Technology has been proposed as a plausible factor.

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory

The Keck Observatory has played an essential role in all branches of astronomy. The progress that has been achieved in our understanding of the formation of galaxies, planets, and stars should be highlighted — not to mention the properties and nature of black holes, as well as the evolution and composition of the Universe.

Another top-of-the-line telescope is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT). The CFHT telescope has been hailed as one of the most prolific telescopes for strengthening the role of environment in the evolution of galaxies. Among its major discoveries in the past two years, it is worth mentioning the discovery of the young hot Jupiter, the first discovery of a magnetic Scuti star, the discovery of two massive stars with a magnetic filed in a binary system, and discovery of the first object with a long-period cometary orbit comet (called C/2014 S3).

Keck Observatory
CFHT’s spectacular images of the heavens
Barred spiral galaxy (NGC 4535), June 2016. Credits: Data obtained using the MegaCam camera on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Image by Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT) & Giovanni Anselmi (Coelum)
- Minimum credit line: “Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope / Coelum”.
Copyright © 2016 CFHT

In the hunt for extrasolar planets, Dr. Nader Haghighipour is using Keck telescopes to look for habitable exoplanets — those with liquid water. On the other hand, Dr Michael Liu employs the Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager on the Gemini telescope to characterize young exoplanets and brown dwarfs.

By the way, brown dwarfs are some of the coolest stars in the universe. The discovery of the coolest binary star so far, which we know contains a brown dwarf star, was made by Mauna Kea telescopes.

Lastly, here you have science highlights and future outlook of the NASA infrared telescope and the VLBA — Very Long Baseline Array Observatory.

Artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope, planned to be built on mount Mauna Kea
Science outreach activities are organized on mount Mauna Kea

Hawaii is a true reflection of my interests

I wish I were in Hawaii. Not only does Hawaii offer topics of research that are utterly fascinating, but also research there is of utmost importance within the astrophysical context. As a recent PhD graduate, I am open to new ventures, and I would jump for joy if I could build up a career at Hawaii.

During my PhD program, my research was centered chiefly on white dwarfs (WDs). I developed a Monte Carlo simulator of the Galactic WD population, which was tested in eclectic studies. I strove to pinpoint the nature and location of dark matter by means of gravitational experiments — how lensing occurs when WDs bend the light of stars behind them. I also did studies on supernova explosions and mergers of WDs, amongst others.

Word cloud of my PhD research, which reflects multiple areas of expertise

Why are WDs so valuable?

Tackling the properties of these populations is essential to shedding light on a wide range of puzzles related to the evolution — not only of our galaxy, but of the universe.

White dwarfs represent the most statistically significant observed population of remnants stars. In our galaxy, the vast majority of stars will end up as WDs — mark final evolutionary stage.

Most white dwarfs are composed either of hydrogen atmospheres or helium atmospheres. In 2016, through the Gemini Telescope, the role of helium in the pulsation of early white dwarfs was established.

Furthermore, scientists were riveted by the Keck telescope discovery, in 2010, of a pair of white dwarfs forming an eclipsing binary system. The mesmerizing thing about the discovery is what causes the eclipses: the helium cores of the white dwarfs. We know that most white dwarfs are made of carbon-oxygen cores, as an end of an evolutionary phase. Helium-core white dwarfs are rare, elusive stars; there is a small likelihood of yielding He-core white dwarfs — and a pair of them is even rarer.

What is more, in 2011, the Subaru telescope was pivotal in creating a census of supernovae, which served as evidence that the universe is actually accelerating in its expansion (see article,

Another event to point out is the first direct proof, in 2011, that the type Ia supernovae is an explosion of a white dwarf in a binary system, which is also attributed to the Keck telescope.
 When it comes to the formation on the type Ia supernovae, two formation channels are currently discussed: merging versus accreting. In the merging scenario, two white dwarfs approach each other and eventually collide, whereas in the accreting scenario, a white dwarf gains mass from a companion star, mainly a main sequence star. I would like to rise to the challenge of unveiling the main channel towards a galactic supernovae type Ia outcome.
 However, these channels cannot be adequately assessed by observing their performance without the management of survey biases, and any selection effect, to assess the degree of representativeness of the target population.

The double degenerate (left) and single degenerate (right) models of a type Ia supernova. Images taken from Wikipedia Commons and Discover Magazine.

Let me pose a question: Today, are our means of perceiving reality making physical laws vulnerable to biases? I bet you would agree if I dared to say that nothing is worse for the astronomer than challenging their stellar population model on the grounds of factual accuracy.
 Let me enlighten you. According to the International Astronomical Union, the main hurdles in astrophysics necessitate overcoming poorly-built theory- validation models. Current stellar population synthesis codes depict a distorted picture of the binary stellar evolution due to uncertainties and assumptions in stellar models, especially in non-equilibrium phases.

On the other hand, quiescent states or episodes of inactivity could make white dwarfs undetectable just for any survey. Consequently, interpreting data without understanding selection effects is futile.

Modeling non-equilibrium phases is crucial for a large number of unsolved questions. There are unknown reasons why various stars change their brightness, such as the so-called “cataclysmic variables.” MKO observatories have proved to be successful in advancing variable star astronomy, especially with infrared telescopes. This is certainly another line of research appealing to me.

In cataclysmic variables (CVs), white dwarfs accrete matter from typically core-hydrogen-burning main sequence stars, usually via an accretion disc that is subject to thermal instabilities that trigger luminosity outbursts. Factors determining what drives mass transfer in CVs are poorly understood at present. Also, it is not clear why CVs are inconspicuous in the time range between 2 and 3 hours (‘’period gap’’).

Why investigate CVs?

The accretion on these WDs triggers powerful explosions (e.g., supernovae) that provide a seedbed for the formation of planets and stars. In particular, the type Ia supernovae (SNIa) are paramount in cosmology; for example, they can be used as a tool to measure larger distances and the rate of expansion of the universe, as I said before.
 Even more, CVs represent the most statistically significant observed population of accretion onto a compact star. Accretion disks in white dwarfs (WD) could easily aid comprehending accreting disks around neutron stars and black holes, as well as large-scale dynamical disc instabilities in active galaxies.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS)

Pan-STARRS is one of the most innovative astronomical observatories. Built by the University of Hawaii, Pan-STARRS has snowballed astronomy discovery and new research. It currently encompasses a wide range of studies, which involves, among others, variable stars, white dwarfs, supernovae, exoplanets, high energy sources, and dark energy.

Pan-STARRS observatory will consist of a combination of four telescopes. For the moment, only two of the telescopes, PS1 and PS2, are active. PS1 has been observing on a regular basis since December 2009, from Mount Haleakala, after solving some problems. PS1 is currently the world’s most powerful astronomical survey system. The second telescope, PS2, built close to PS1, started observations in 2015.

You have here a link to a list of articles that have been published to date, in the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals, with research conducted within the framework of Pan-STARRS.

High Priority Projects undertaken with Pan-STARSS at University of Hawaii in consortium with other astronomical institutions round the globe.

Now, let us have a glimpse of some breaking news.

On September 2015, LIGO provided the first evidence of gravitational waves, supposedly two black holes releasing gravitational waves while colliding.

Many scientists assume that new research on gravitational wave radiation may change our comprehension of a high-energy universe forever. See, for example, the talk given by Dr David Reitze (from LIGO team), on May 10, 2016, at UH-Hilo.

Hawaii has jumped on the gravitational wave bandwagon. To date, PS1 is mapping the region covered by LIGO; it has identified over 50 supernovae, none of which are associated with a gravitational event. Yet PS2 will start observing on regular basis in fall 2016, with two times the rated power survey capability of PS1. Thus, Pan-STARRS is expected to come into its own down the line.

A team led by researchers of the University of Hawaii aims to find out if the merging black holes discovered by LIGO may be primordial black holes, which is to say a form of dark matter.

Video: Primordial black holes, if they exist, could be similar to the merging black holes detected by the LIGO team in 2015. This computer simulation shows in slow motion what this merger would have looked like up close. The ring around the black holes, called an Einstein ring, arises from all the stars in a small region directly behind the holes whose light is distorted by gravitational lensing. Credits: SXS Lensing (see more

On March 2015, the fastest star in the Milky Way propelled by a type Ia supernova was spotted by Hawaii telescopes (Keck and Pan-STARRS). The star was called US 708, and it is a helium-rich white dwarf.

“At that speed, you could travel from Earth to the moon in 5 minutes,” said Dr Eugene Magnier (University of Hawaii)
Animation of the mass-transfer phase to a white dwarf followed by a double-detonation supernova that leads to the ejection of US708 from the galaxy. (credit: NASA, ESA and P. Ruiz-Lapuente, cut and colored by S. Geier)
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