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Keck celebrates 20 years


Stephens Media

Few establishments can boast as many landmark discoveries as W.M. Keck Observatory. During the past two decades, its accomplishments include detecting the first planet outside of our solar system, proving the Milky Way has a super massive black hole at its center and helping with research that led to the demise of Pluto as a planet.

Its mission — advancing the frontiers of astronomy and sharing its discoveries as well as inspiring the imagination of all — goes beyond exploring and understanding the cosmos. Here on Earth, at its Waimea headquarters, its staff helps people, especially children, find not only the stars, but also a love of science and astronomy.

Director of Advancement Debbie Goodwin said Keck’s commitment to its mission and educational efforts is reflected by its 2 percent policy. Employees are encouraged to dedicate 2 percent of their annual work time giving back through community projects or in schools. “We feel very much connected to the Big Island and especially to the Waimea community,” she added.

On March 16, the public will have an opportunity to get a glimpse inside the observatory’s universe through a free open house at its headquarters on Mamalahoa Highway. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the observatory’s 125 full-time employees, most of whom are engineers, will share what it takes to run the revolutionary twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Goodwin said.

Standing eight stories tall, weighing 300 tons and operating with nanometer precision, these fully steerable optical infrared telescopes are able to see objects fainter and farther away than any other research facility. Keck is a 24-hour operation and is managed as a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation whose board of directors includes representatives from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. Annually, the observatory hosts hundreds of visiting astronomers — experts in their field working on their own research projects, Goodwin said.

“Keck’s purpose is to be a discovery machine,” she said. “Over the past 20 years, we have pushed the frontiers of discovery and obtained knowledge for all of humanity that has helped us better understand the nature of the universe and our place in its vast expanse. Still there is more to discover. For our next 20 years, we will continue to strive to develop new observing capabilities which will allow us to keep being a world leader and take us to the next level of discerning the universe.”

The open house will have more than 20 exhibits, many of which will offer hands-on activities and demonstrations. For instance, attendees will discover what happens to everyday objects when exposed to liquid nitrogen, and be able to use a hydraulic press to create a key ring, build a spectrograph, learn how Keck cleans the telescopes’ primary mirrors, and use the GPS on their smartphones to find geocaches of data around the headquarters.

In addition, there will be presentations on everything from adaptive optics and infrared instruments to engineering marvels in the Hualalai Learning Theater. Keck’s decommissioned near infrared camera will also be on display.

“This is science with aloha,” Goodwin said.

With the help of his fellow co-workers and volunteer students from the University of Hawaii, Instrument and Optics Supervisor Eric Appleby will be teaching people how to solder and fabricate flashing electronic board pins. Besides an appreciation of electronics, what Appleby hopes attendees take away most is “a curiosity for what’s happening in the universe” and “an inkling, perhaps, to join us.” He’s worked for Keck for almost 12 years and says, “it’s more a passion than a job.”

Approximately 2,000 people attended Keck’s last open house in 2008 and the observatory is expecting even more this year. For local students with “a knack for high level math, science, technology and engineering,” Goodwin hopes the open house further encourages them that their highest hopes are within reach, and it’s possible for them to get such jobs in their own backyard.

The open house is part of Keck Week, a series of events happening March 13 through 19 to celebrate the observatory’s 20th anniversary and commemorate its scientific accomplishments.

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Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at


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