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W. M. Keck Observatory

Keck Telescopes
Keck I and II at the summit of Mauna Kea.

In 2008, Swinburne University of Technology signed an historic agreement with CalTech, giving Swinburne's astronomers unprecedented access to the twin 10-metre Keck optical telescopes: up to 20 nights per year for at least the next five years. Located 4200 metres above sea-level at the summit of the dormant volcano, Manua Kea, in Hawaii, the two Keck telescopes have provided some of the most spectacular views of the Universe ever obtained.

The telescopes are the largest and most productive optical/infrared telescopes in the world. Each telescope mirror is made from 36 hexagonal segments 1.8 metres in diameter. The enormous mirror structure weighs in at over 14,000 kg, yet it is extremely well balanced and can be pointed towards objects in the night sky with amazing precision.

Keck I Primary
The 10-metre primary mirror of Keck I.

Instruments

Both Keck I and II offer a wide range of instruments, including:

  • the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES), which disperses light into thousands of individual wavelength channels for extremely detailed analysis enabling the detection of planets orbiting other stars and the conditions of atoms in gas located in and near very distant galaxies as two examples;
  • the Low Resolution Imaging Spectrograph (LRIS), which has the sensitivity to image and obtain multi-object optical spectra of extremely faint objects such as the most distant galaxies and supernovae in the Universe;
  • the OH-Suppressing Infra-Red Imaging Spectrograph (OSIRIS), which is an integral field unit using laser guide star adaptive optics, capable of obtaining very high resolution imaging (equivalent to and better than the Hubble Space Telescope) and spatially resolved spectra providing detailed three-dimensional information of objects such as individual distant galaxies or the nuclear cores of nearby galaxies harboring supermassive black holes ;
  • the Multi-Object Spectrograph for InfraRed Exploration (MOSFIRE), the newest instrument, which has the sensitivity to image and obtain multi-object spectra of the faintest objects, such as distant galaxies, at infrared wavelengths;
  • the Deep Extragalactic Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS) that is capable of taking hundreds of simultaneous deep optical spectra of objects to study globular clusters and stars in nearby galaxies and the large scale distribution of distant galaxies;
  • the Near Infrared Camera2 (NIRC2) provides very high resolution laser guide star adaptive optics infrared imaging (equivalent to and better than the Hubble Space Telescope) for peering through clouds of dust to watch the birth of new stars, study the complex activity at the centre of our Galaxy, or uncover the morphology and interactions of distant galaxies;

At mid-infrared wavelengths (5-27 micron), the two Keck telescopes can be coupled together to form an interferometer - effectively an 85-metre diameter telescope, ideal for studying properties of binary stars and extra-solar planets.

Looking down to Hale Pokahu at 9000ft
Looking down to Hale Pokahu at 3000 m above sea level.
Credit: Sarah Brough/Swinburne

At the summit

At the dizzying heights of Mauna Kea’s summit, oxygen is in short supply - only about 60% of that at sea level. At this altitude, you are nearly half-way to outer space (as far as the atmosphere is concerned) which greatly diminishes the blurring effects of the atmosphere thus providing sharp images and spectra. In order to make observing conditions as safe as possible for visiting astronomers, the telescope control room is less than a quarter of the way up the mountain with a remote link to the instrument and staff at the summit. The permanent team of astronomers and support staff are based at the top of the mountain, but even they return to the somewhat safer altitude of 3000 m to sleep at the Hale Paihaku station.

The road to the summit is steep, winding and very rough. For astronomers and technical support staff who take this road, there are other hazards beyond the lack of oxygen: since much of the road crosses an open cattle range, ‘invisible cows’ can be almost impossible to see in darkness or fog.

Keck I Control Room
Swinburne astronomer, Dr Michael Murphy, in the Keck Control Room.

Swinburne astronomers and students at Keck

Access to the Keck Telescopes is granted by the Swinburne Time Assignment Committee for Keck (STACK). Following a call for proposals, Swinburne astronomers apply to use the telescopes in order to complete their specific astronomy research program. The STACK reviews the applications, and decides who will get time - and who will miss out.

Most Keck observing runs involve PhD students and some of the data collected forms part of their PhD thesis. The Centre is the only astronomy department in Australia from which PhD students regularly have the opportunity to observe with the Keck telescopes.

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