New Tool to Allow Astronomers New Glimpse of Universe

August 7, 2019, 4:46 PM HST (Updated August 8, 2019, 6:38 AM)
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Image: Mauna Kea Observatories

Maunakea Observatories’ East Asian Observatory just received a three-part instrument that will allow astronomers to locate and study the coldest gas and dust in the universe.

East Asian Observatory recently received delivery of its newest addition—Namakanui, or translated to English “big-eyed fish.” Named by renowned Hawaiian language expert Dr. Larry Kimura, Namakanui will open a new window into the universe from Maunakea, an observatory press release stated.

The instrument is comprised of three cameras, each studying the universe at a different wavelength, or color of light. The three detectors all have their own species names, U‘u (1.2mm detector), Aweoweo (0.8mm) and Ala’ihi (3.5mm). Dr. Kimura visited the East Asian Observatories’ base facility in Hilo to see the instrument in person for the first time upon its arrival.

“We love the names Dr. Kimura chose—how they describe the species of fish in Hawaiian waters that come out in the darkness of night to hunt with their large sensitive eyes,” said Dr. Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory. “Namakanui will peer into the darkest and coldest regions of space to help astronomers hunt for objects we currently are unable to see.”

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When operational, the instrument will be cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero in order to be sensitive to faint radiation emitted from cold, star-forming gases such as carbon monoxide and other complex molecules that coalesce in our galaxy and beyond.

The EAO team plans to use Namakanui next year for the next experiment with the Event Horizon Telescope as the world-wide collection of telescopes hunt for the next image of a black hole, the release continued.

EAO and its neighbor on the summit of Maunakea, the Submillimeter Array, participated in the last Event Horizon Telescope experiment, which lead to the the achievement of imaging Pōwehi, the black hole at the center of the massive M87 galaxy, announced earlier this year.

In the next hunt, Namakanui’s detectors will bring four times more sensitive measurements to the experiment, offering an even greater chance of imaging these mysterious monsters at the centers of our galaxy and beyond.

Namakanui arrived in Hilo three weeks ago, intended for delivery and installation at the summit immediately after. The ongoing protests and access challenges made that impossible. Instead, the staff at EAO and ASIAA cooled the instrument down in the EAO labs to start testing and learning about the instrument, the release said.

Namakanui is too sensitive to travel to the summit until access is possible by the main Maunakea Access Road. The challenge will remain in getting the instrument installed and commissioned in time for the Event Horizon Telescope tests later this year and early next year, the release continued.

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