Keck Interferometer Winding Down

The Keck Interferometer, linking twin telescopes located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii and part of NASA’s search for extrasolar planets, now faces its final months of operation due to NASA budget cuts. It is scheduled to shut down in July, though the two telescopes it linked will continue to observe independently of one another. While the Keck telescopes are among the largest in the world for infrared and near-optical observation, financial and political obstacles prevented them from ever reaching their full potential.

Built in the 1990s, the Keck’s twin telescopes were to have been joined by four smaller “outrigger” telescopes that would have dramatically increased the Interferometer’s ability to observe small areas of sky. The telescopes’ combined power would have made visible planets the size of Uranus orbiting nearby stars.

NASA actually built the outriggers several years ago, but they never reached Mauna Kea. NASA withdrew their funding after setbacks in other programs meant to search for exoplanets. This, added to objections from native Hawaiians who have long opposed the presence of an observatory atop what they consider a sacred mountain, along with a court-ordered halt to expansion of the observatory to assess its environmental impact, sounded the death knell for the project. Last year, NASA ultimately withdrew funding for the Interferometer itself.

Keck in Motion from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

Image: The Keck Interferometer, with the telescopes’ doors open to equalize temperature inside and outside of the domes. Credit: NASA/JPL

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