Baldwin High School graduate Alan Tokunaga has won the Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service to Planetary Science, presented by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.
Tokunaga, a staff astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, has been director of the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea since 2000.
Reached by telephone Wednesday at his Manoa office, Tokunaga said: "I'm not doing it all by myself. (The award) is a credit to the staff as well."
When Tokunaga was at Baldwin (class of 1967), the Institute for Astronomy did not yet exist, and UH was not the heavy hitter in astronomy that it is today, so that wasn't what inspired him.
He said he was always interested in astronomy, so he went to the Mainland to study, earning a degree in physics from Pomona College in California, and master's and doctoral degrees in astronomy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"It was a happy accident" that he was able to come back to Hawaii to pursue his research, and a second happy accident that his graduate adviser led him to specialize in infrared astronomy, then a relatively new and exciting field.
Tokunaga's research has focused on discovering and characterizing carbonaceous dust in interstellar space.
Much of this material is amorphous, but he and his associates have discovered that some of it, although very small, is layered, like an onion, he said.
The same effect can be achieved in the laboratory, and it seems clear to him that the carbon material forms from condensation of hot plasma, although the exact process in space remains somewhat mysterious.
From the beginning of his career, Tokunaga has been interested in instrumentation, he said, and the award citation says he "has played an indispensable role in the growth of ground-based infrared astronomy of the solar system, and in furthering planetary science as a whole."
High praise. The society does not give out a Masursky Award every year; it did not in 2009, for example.
Tokunaga received it at the society's annual meeting in Pasadena, Calif., earlier this month.
Tokunaga said he has two new instrumentation projects under way. One, fully funded, will take about three years to develop and will provide a new instrument for the NASA Infrared Telescope.
Tokunaga worked to standardize infrared filters used around the world.
The second project, not yet funded, will create an infrared instrument for the 30-meter Telescope, a giant research project that is still being developed.
Since coming to UH in 1979, Tokunaga has worked on developing new instruments for the NASA Infrared and Subaru telescopes at Mauna Kea, and under his directorship, there have been numerous improvements to the NASA scope that have significantly enhanced its image quality. The facility supports NASA space missions by providing essential preliminary and follow-up observations of space mission targets.
Through his research, Tokunaga has made contributions to planetary science in the areas of the composition of planetary atmospheres, asteroids and comets. His research has also delved into the composition of the interstellar medium and the formation of stars.
Tokunaga also wrote the infrared astronomy section in the latest edition of "Allen's Astrophysical Quantities," an important reference book for astronomers.
Institute Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki said: "Alan Tokunaga has been doing an outstanding job as director of the (NASA) IRTF. With his enormous experience, scientific skills, and dedication, he has turned the IRTF into one of the world's most successful telescopes."
On the Net:
* 2010 DPS prize recipients: dps.aas.org/prizes/2010
* Alan Tokunaga's home page: www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~tokunaga/
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.