Pan-STARRS 2 parts soon will come together

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope that discovered a comet that was visible in Hawaii’s skies last week will have company soon, as Pan-STARRS 2 nears completion atop Haleakala.

“Once PS 2 is completed this year, the Pan-STARRS system will be by far the most powerful wide-field imaging system in existence,” said Nick Kaiser, principal investigator of Pan-STARRS at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

The new telescope, which is nearly identical to Pan-STARRS 1, will take time to be calibrated and may be operational by the middle of 2014, he said. The new telescope will have small improvements in mechanics, detectors, optics and camera electronics compared to its sister telescope, the Pan-STARRS website said.

It is going up about 50 feet north of Pan-STARRS 1, where the University of Tokyo’s Magnum telescope used to be.

The second telescope and mirrors are on their way, with an expected mid-April arrival on Maui, said Kaiser.

“We are quite nervous,” he said in a phone interview Monday.

There will be lots of work to do once the parts arrive, and there is nervousness about “whether it will make it here in one piece,” he said.

The mirrors, which were built on the Mainland, will be integrated with the telescope, which was made in Belgium.

“Everything gets integrated when it arrives on Maui,” he said about the new telescope that will help monitor Earth-approaching objects that might pose a danger to the planet.

“That’s why it is a bit tricky. You hope everything fits together and plays together, ” he said. “It’s not like looking in a catalog . . . and saying ‘I’ll have this one.’ It’s a big complicated process.”

For example, the mirrors have to be positioned correctly – “to the width of a human hair,” he said.

“There are always surprises,” Kaiser continued, noting that they learned that lesson while assembling Pan-STARRS 1.

The Pan-STARRS design, developed at the IfA, involves a combination of relatively small mirrors with very large digital cameras that creates a viewing system that can observe the entire sky several times each month, the website said. Kaiser said astronomers get to visit the whole visible sky about 20 times a year.

The original Pan-STARRS concept involved building four telescopes, but budget issues have forced builders to rethink that, Kaiser said. The Pan-STARRS project found itself $10 million short following the decision by Congress to end earmarks as the project organizers tried to complete the second telescope.

The project was re-scoped. Money came in from the Air Force and the university, Kaiser said. “The last piece of the puzzle” was an anonymous $3 million gift.

“Before receiving this generous gift, we were looking at having to lay our team off and halting the two-telescope system project,” said Gunther Hasinger, director of the IfA in a news release. “Having already invested $80 million in this project, it would have been a tragedy to let his program die, especially since we are so close to finishing.”

He said that not only would the second telescope, which will cost $15 million, not be built, but the destruction of the infrastructure of experts would have taken years to rebuild.

Kaiser said the focus now is on getting the second telescope built; the other two telescopes are up in the air. The telescope developers hope to demonstrate performance and then see how the economic situation is.

“Times are very tough” for getting large projects funded, he added.

In explaining the philosophy behind the multiple telescopes, Kaiser said that telescopes looking at faint objects in space take images with 3- to 5-minute exposures to gather as much light in as possible.

But asteroids move too quickly, so the long exposures are not possible, he explained. Pan-STARRS takes short exposures of 40 seconds each with telescopes observing the same sky simultaneously. In general terms, the short exposures are combined to make up for the light deficiencies.

Pan-STARRS is attracting two types of astronomers, said Kaiser.

One group is looking at a time-lapsed movie of everything. They are interested in things that move, such as supernovas.

The other group is looking at the static sky, “all things that are not changing,” such as the hundreds of millions of other galaxies.

The discoveries include the comet Pan-STARRS that zipped out of view of Earth last week and hundreds of other near-Earth asteroids.

An exciting find was the observation “for the first time” of a star being torn apart by a black hole, Kaiser said. When a star gets too close to a black hole, “you get this huge fireworks display. . . . The insides of the star spews out.”

This process lasts about a year, he said.

Pan-STARRS in collaboration with a satellite provided the “first gold-plated detection of one of these events,” Kaiser said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at