UH a ‘powerhouse’ among national astronomy programs

2 1/2 square inch HAWAII 4RG sensor developed by IfA is installed at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. The telescope’s instrument, SPIRou, searches for Earth-sized planets. (Photo credit: S. Baratchart–OMP/IRAP)

The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA) has been a prime mover in federally funded astronomy programs, according to a study published in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems.

The authors tracked the impact of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for astronomy technology and instrumentation development over the last 30 years.

From world-class infrared imaging to groundbreaking laser optics, IfA’s cutting-edge devices funded by NSF have had major impacts on the field of astronomy.

“The IfA is a powerhouse of astronomical instrumentation — fueled in large part by funding from the forward looking NSF Advanced Technologies and Instrumentation (ITA) program,” explains IfA Astronomer Christoph Baranec. “The key new technologies that are developed at the IfA enable scientific breakthroughs, create unique training opportunities, and pave the way for other major facilities around the world and in space.”

IfA projects supported by the NSF ATI program

Robo-AO on the UH 2.2-m telescope on Maunakea. (Photo credit: C. Baranec)

Baranec developed the very first autonomous laser adaptive optics (AO) system and science instrument. The Robo-AO system is able to correct image distortion due to Earth’s atmosphere and execute large surveys robotically. It’s funded by the NSF ATI program and is “the most widely acknowledged ATI award” in the history of the program.

Baranec is now deploying its successor, Robo-AO-2, also supported by ATI, on the UH 2.2-m telescope on Maunakea.

IfA received a $7 million grant, the largest single ATI award to date, to support development of the HAWAII 4RG mosaic camera, which has become the gold standard in infrared imaging, and will soon be in use at almost all major ground-based observatories. The device will also be utilized in many upcoming space missions including the Euclid and Nancy Grace Roman space telescopes.

Other ongoing ATI-funded projects on Maunakea include ʻIMAKA, an adaptive optics system that corrects atmospheric image distortion over a much larger area than previously possible. ATI recently funded a new deformable secondary mirror for the UH 88-inch telescope that will be the first of its kind on a major telescope. Additionally, the ATI program has funded work to improve the exoplanet imaging capabilities of the W. M. Keck Observatory using optical techniques originally designed for space telescopes.

One award, supported the development of a novel near-infrared pyramid wavefront sensor for Keck Observatory’s AO system, built by Charlotte Bond, Mark Chun and Don Hall at IfA.

“The NSF ATI program has been a key supporter of new instrumentation, which has proven transformative on many occasions,” said IfA Astronomer Michael Bottom, recipient of the most recent award. “The funding we received this year will not only help advance the field, but will let us train the next generation of instrumentalists here in Hawaii.”

Impacts of funding

According to the study, ATI grants have provided many early career researchers the opportunity to gain critical professional experience, but technology development unfolds over a time period that is longer than an individual grant. It noted that investments in technology and instrumentation can lead to exceptional scientific progress.

Long-term impacts are seen in ATI awards from the 1980s and 1990s, a period notable for disseminating charged-coupled device (CCD) cameras to astronomical observatories for research and teaching. Maunakea was one of the observatories to receive CCD cameras through ATI awards in this time period.

In the 1980s, the IfA was already a major player in the development of adaptive optics for astronomy. Innovative approaches to wavefront sensing and control, the curvature sensor and bimorph mirror, were developed during this time.

ATI awards to former IfA researcher Francois Roddier partially supported the deployment of this technology at the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope on Maunakea, and its use to study circumstellar environments and protoplanetary disks. The technology was later adopted by the 8-m Subaru Telescope, also on Maunakea. ATI supported the development of laser guide stars and the deployment of AO instrumentation on Maunakea.

“This report confirms that the IfA is a world leader in astronomical instrumentation, and the ATI program has played a major role, bringing funding, expertise and training opportunities to Hawaii,” IfA Interim Director Robert McLaren noted. “It is a great example of just how important astronomy has been, and will continue to be to the future of our state.”


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