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The Mirrors of Mauna Kea : Daringly Different, Keck Observatory's Multifaceted Telescope Will Look Back to the Origins of the Universe

October 03, 1993|LEE DYE | Lee Dye is a contibuting editor of this magazine. His last article was "Mr. Packard and the Deep Blue Sea," about the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Winds have been howling over the 13,794-foot summit of Mauna Kea for almost a week, frequently gusting above 100 m.p.h. A transmitter atop the dormant volcano blew down the night before, severing communications with workers at the construction site. A repair crew is refusing to make the long, twisting drive up the mountain under these conditions. More problems. Jerry Nelson props his bare feet on a computer table, picks up the phone and dials Terry Mast, a colleague on the W.M. Keck Telescope project and an old friend. What now? Mast wants to know.

The computer program that controls a key part of their revolutionary telescope is screwed up, Nelson complains, and the software engineers have concluded that they can't fix it--their own program! "I don't understand how people who built something can say, 'It's broken and we can't fix it,' " Nelson says, rounding off the sharp edge in his voice with a fatalistic laugh. He is a consummate scientist, and nothing bugs him more than something that doesn't make sense. The problem with the Keck Telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea clearly falls into that category, joining the thousands of other setbacks that have given Nelson headaches to match his mountain.

There must be days, I suggest, when he wishes he had never set his sights on something the experts said could not be done. A boyish grin spreads across his face. No, he says convincingly. There are no such days.

The 49-year-old physicist in the faded aloha shirt, looking like an aging surfer in his office at Kamuela, near the Big Island's Kona Coast and a two-hour drive from the summit of Mauna Kea, has faced adversity before. A few years ago, Nelson stood almost alone against the world of astronomy. He claimed he could design and build the world's largest telescope, far bigger than what was thought feasible.

He aspired to change the state of the art, to abandon the traditional single-mirror reflecting telescope epitomized by the famous 200-incher atop Mt. Palomar in northern San Diego County. He would build instead a telescope of 36 hexagonal mirrors, each 1.8 meters in diameter, fitted together in a pattern like a honeycomb and computer-controlled so precisely that they would work as if they were a single mirror 10 meters in diameter. That would be twice the diameter and four times the power of the Hale Telescope at Palomar.

It would be the most complicated ground-based telescope ever built, but if it worked, it could produce the sharpest images ever from the distant reaches of the universe.

Most of his colleagues said he was nuts.

In the 1980s, when Nelson began to act on his dream, it didn't help that he still bore a teen-like youthfulness, hardly the image of a scientist who could lead a technological revolution. Confident almost to the point of cockiness, he engaged his detractors with disarming poise, quickly admitting that he did not have all the answers. Not then at least. But now the W.M. Keck Observatory is expected to be operational by the first of the year.

Nevertheless, he has his critics. One of the nation's top telescope designers, who demanded anonymity, once described Nelson as an "arrogant fool." Nelson's telescope is so complex, the designer insisted, that it will not work. And in the end, he said, the nearly $200 million spent on the observatory will be wasted.

There is no way Nelson could have foreseen just how rough a course he had set as a young scientist seeking to make his mark on the world. Before it would end, he would see his project jeopardized by the death of a benefactor and claims of flawed work by contractors thought to be the best in the world. Most difficult of all, while Nelson struggled to keep his mind on the dream, his wife was dying.

JERRY NELSON'S AIM WAS TO BUILD A TELESCOPE so powerful it could peer back through the dimension of time, toward that point, perhaps 15 billion years ago, when most astronomers and physicists believe the expanding universe was born in a big bang of creation. Dim and distant objects hold secrets of the evolution of the cosmos. Precise measurements of their chemical composition, age, distance from Earth and evolution should provide the data that scientists use to try to resolve mind-bending questions: What's beyond our little solar system, beyond our Milky Way galaxy, out there in the dust-obscured or empty stretches of space? How did it begin, and how will it end?

Great telescopes are like time machines because they look so far into the distance that they see objects as they used to be. The Keck Telescope promises to let us look more deeply, capturing light from the faintest specks in the sky, stars and starlike objects that formed when the universe was very young. It will be a leader, Nelson says, "the most productive era in the history of astronomy."

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