W. M. Keck Observatory

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The twin Keck telescopes of the W. M. Keck Observatory reside at the summit of Hawaii's Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot dormant volcano.  The first of the two telescopes has been actively observing the universe since May of 1993, while its brother began in October of 1996.  Together they are the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes.

Instead of using one large mirror like conventional telescopes, each of the Keck telescopes is composed of 36 hexagonal mirrors acting together as one large, 10-meter-wide reflective surface.  These two massive products of modern engineering are spaced 85-meters apart, resulting in a 10-fold increase in resolution when their light is combined into a giant interferometer.

Operated by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), the Keck telescopes were built through grants totaling more that $140 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation.  With these technical marvels astronomers have been addressing some of the most pressing questions about the Universe.  This includes the discovery of an object orbiting what may have been the 10th planet, Eris, allowing its mass and radius to be determined.  Eris, scientists find, is larger than Pluto.   The  Keck’s “nuller” device has also been able to suppress the light of three stars, including Vega, by 100 times.  One day this technique may be used to view  extrasolar planets directly orbiting these stars.  These activities are part of  NASA’s Planetquest project, whose primary function is the search for extrasolar planets like our own.  The Keck’s primary distinction is each element collects more light than any other optical telescope on earth, by almost a factor of three. For this reason, it is especially useful in exploring the deepest portions of the optical universe. 

This overview was written using information available at the Keck Observatory website as well as the NASA Planetquest website and the Keck Newsletter website

Nicholas Hunt-Walker (summer intern 2007)