Hawaiian Eye to the Sky Now Under UA Directorship
The UA has entered a partnership with the University of Hawaii, NASA and Lockheed Martin to operate the world's second-largest telescope dedicated to infrared astronomy.

University Relations - Communications
Oct. 31, 2014


UKIRT detects its light with a suite of advanced instruments, including WFCAM  and UIST . These "workhorse" instruments can perform most types of infrared observations.
UKIRT detects its light with a suite of advanced instruments, including WFCAM and UIST . These "workhorse" instruments can perform most types of infrared observations. (the Wide-Field Camera)

With funding support from NASA and Lockheed Martin Corp., the University of Arizona and the University of Hawaii have come to the rescue of the world's second-largest telescope dedicated to infrared astronomy, which was in danger of shutting down because of the budget constraints of its previous owner, the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the U.K.

Under the agreement, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, or UKIRT, considered one of the world’s leading astronomical observatories, is entering a new phase of its operations. The UH assumes ownership of the telescope, while the UA takes directorship. Together with NASA and Lockheed Martin, the partners have formed a scientific collaboration to operate the facility to provide new opportunities for research in all areas of astrophysics, but particularly on near-Earth asteroid characterization, studies of forming stars, galaxy evolution, and space debris and its impact on manmade satellites.

The UA will operate UKIRT on behalf of the new partnership, including continuing participation by U.K. scientists who will be providing support of existing data processing and archiving capabilities for the observatory.

"UKIRT provides some unique observing capabilities to our community of faculty and students," said Buell Jannuzi, head of the UA's Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory. "The partnership that has come together is also groundbreaking for us in several ways, in that it brings a unique mix of talent and many of the U.S. experts in infrared astronomy together for the first time. This is also the first time we have helped to operate a telescope from Mauna Kea, one of the world’s best sites for infrared astronomy. I’m excited about the prospects for world-class science to continue being produced from this facility."

"The instrument most in demand is a wide-field camera, highly suited for surveying vast areas of sky," said incoming UKIRT director Richard Green, assistant director for government relations at Steward Observatory. "Its wide-angle mode makes it the ideal complement to the telephoto-like mode of our Large Binocular Telescope."

UKIRT sees the universe with infrared light, the invisible heat radiation that lies beyond red at the edge of a rainbow. It originally was designed as a relatively simple "light collector," but its 3.8-meter diameter mirror is of extremely high quality. Advanced upgrades to the rest of the telescope have allowed UKIRT to take full advantage of the excellent environment on Mauna Kea, with its high altitude and dry, low-turbulence atmospheric conditions. The telescope also records mid-infrared light from the ground from a particularly dry site, with one of the few such instruments on the planet. In addition, it provides spectral mapping of contiguous areas and measures polarized light in the near-infrared.

Shortly after UKIRT's Imager Spectrometer instrument started observations, it was trained upon the most distant quasar known, about 13 billion light years from Earth. Quasars are exceptionally luminous galaxies, far brighter than can be explained by normal starlight. They are powered by the release of gravitational energy as matter is pulled toward a supermassive black hole at their center, and their extreme brightness makes them visible at great distances. By looking at gas swirling around the quasar's core, scientists were able to "weigh" this black hole at the edge of the universe: It has the mass of three billion suns. UKIRT also has significantly advanced our understanding of brown dwarfs, mysterious objects sometimes referred to as "failed stars." They are more massive than gas giant planets such as Jupiter, but are not quite massive enough to shine like normal stars.

The telescope is currently supported by the NASA Office of Orbital Debris through a contract to Lockheed Martin STAR Labs, whose mission is protection of NASA space assets by characterizing debris through multicolor and spectroscopic observations. All of the research conducted on the telescope is unclassified, a condition of operation on the summit of Mauna Kea. The University of Hawaii and University of Arizona share the remaining time for competitive science proposals. By seeking continuing support from NASA and other operations partners, UA astronomers intend to operate the facility into the indefinite future.

"I have never known a machine that inspires such affection amongst its users," said Gary Davis, director of the Joint Astronomy Center, which has been operating UKIRT for the Science and Technology Facilities Council. "UKIRT has been a fabulous success story for British astronomy over its 35-year lifetime."

Davis said that over the past decade, the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey,  or UKIDSS, has opened new frontiers in infrared astronomy, and as a consequence UKIRT has been the most productive telescope on the planet for the past two years.

"Astronomers using UKIRT have made many world-leading discoveries, including the detection and characterization of the weak emission from brown dwarfs to the identification of the most distant quasar known," said Pat Roche, final chair of the UKIRT board. "UKIRT’s innovative instruments have played a key role in the development of the field of infrared astronomy, with a rich stream of astronomical results supporting research programs and student training at universities throughout the UK and beyond. The telescope remains a very powerful instrument at the peak of its performance."

The Science and Technology Facilities Council announced in 2012, after a review of observational capabilities, that it no longer would longer continue to support the telescope in a tightly constrained financial environment. STFC extended operations of UKIRT while arrangements for its future were made, including completing the highly productive UKIDSS survey.


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Richard Green




Buell Jannuzi