Students Conduct Research Atop Mauna Kea

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
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Posted: Jul 30, 2001

For the first time in Mauna Kea's history as an international site for astronomical observation, undergraduate students have recently conducted their own stellar research projects using one of the summit's telescopes.

Under the tutelage of University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Professor of Astronomy Dr. Richard Crowe, the observational astrophysics class spent 10 half-nights on the summit of Mauna Kea this summer during a six-week course, observing at the University of Hawaii's 0.6-meter telescope. Managed by the Institute for Astronomy, the telescope was the first to operate on the summit ridge of Mauna Kea in 1969, and is now used for wide-field surveys, instrument development, and educational purposes.

"It's remarkable," said Crowe. "This is something that has never before taken place in the history of modern astronomy on Mauna Kea. Students are doing the observing themselves, setting up the instrument, choosing objects, moving the telescope, focusing on a star, and taking CCD images."

A charge-coupled device (CCD) is a digital imaging detector similar to those used in home video cameras. "They are light sensitive electronic imaging devices that are astronomical workhorses," explained Crowe.

In a collaborative effort, the mount for the CCD was designed by UH Hilo Astronomy Technician Roy Thompson, and machined by Subaru Observatory Technician Brian Elms.

Each of the nine students conducted an individual CCD image processing research project during the course. Four of the course participants are UH Hilo Astronomy majors: Sebastian Bronner; Serette Kaminski; Michael Oldfather; and John Swatek.

Bronner also served as student assistant during the course, keeping the computer running at the telescope and helping other students with their observations. UH Hilo physics graduate and lecturer Mavourneen Wilcox, along with Thompson, also assisted with the observations.

Two participating students, Ian Renaud-Kim and Susan Parker, are telescope operators at the UH 2.24-meter telescope on Mauna Kea. Renaud-Kim is a Hawaiʻi Community College computer electronics student.

Participants also included Aron Ahmadia, computer engineering major at Illinois Institute of Technology, J. D. Thompson, retired physics professor, and Andolie Marten, UH Hilo returning student.

Supplementing the hands-on research, Crowe and UH Hilo Professor of Astronomy Dr. William Heacox conducted classroom teaching at the UH Hilo campus during the six-week period.

The summer course was part of a $675,000 NASA grant awarded to Crowe and UH Hilo Associate Professor of Education Dr. Alice Kawakami in the fall of last year. The New Opportunities Through Minority Initiatives in Space Science (NOMISS) grant is funding programs that encourage local students, from kindergarten through undergraduate studies, to become interested in astronomy.

With tuition supplemented by the grant, each student paid just $52 in administration fees for the course. The grant's ultimate goal is to combine the cultural aspects of science and astronomy, connecting Hawaiʻi children with the Hawaiian heritage of celestial knowledge so that they will one day have a stake in the management and development of the astronomical community atop Mauna Kea's summit.

Kawakami is working with teachers from both public and private K-12 schools throughout the state, including Kamehameha Schools and the Department of Education, to develop programs that will interest and prepare students for the study of space science when they enter high school.

Crowe's focus is on the development of scientific programs, especially in gaining access for UH Hilo undergraduate students to the observatories atop Mauna Kea for hands-on instruction and research.

The Bachelor of Science in Astronomy at UH Hilo is the first such undergraduate university program in the state.