HALEAKALA - A $30 million modernization effort at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex atop Haleakala will make the facility attractive and viable for new research and development opportunities, a high-ranking Air Force official said Wednesday.
"By upgrading, (it) ensures the long-term future of the site," said Lt. Col. Michael Harvey with the Air Force Research Laboratory Detachment 15, which oversees the complex that houses the Department of Defense's largest satellite-tracking telescope.
Harvey added that the three years of upgrades, which included everything from repairing floors to adding lightning protection for the telescopes and replacing computers dating back to the 1990s, all set a platform for "new research" to be done.
Air Force Maj. James Mikes explains how the 3.67-meter telescope, known as the Advanced Electro-Optical System, works. The telescope, owned by the Department of Defense, is the nation’s largest optical telescope designed for tracking satellites.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Government officials, including Mayor Alan Arakawa, Council Member Don Couch and representatives from research companies from the Maui High Performance Computing Center in Kihei that help process and translate the data collected on the mountain, attended a blessing of the modernization project Wednesday afternoon at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex.
Arakawa praised the work of the Air Force and the other entities involved in the modernization efforts, noting that it was impressive to see a small community like Maui playing such an important role in the nation's defense and in science. He said that there is a lot of state-of-the-art technology found on this island.
"The scientific community here is tremendous," he said.
The high-tech community offers its expertise and resources to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education on Maui, he said, adding that the county also is contributing to the effort.
One of the tasks of the complex is tracking satellites, from DIRECTV's satellite to space junk, such as debris left behind from old rockets, said Keith Knox, technical adviser for the Maui Space Surveillance Systems Branch, Optics Division. He said that some of the satellites orbit the Earth in 90 minutes while others could take a day.
Through the monitoring of satellites, which Harvey said could be as small as a bolt or as large as a school bus, they are able to prevent collisions and keep satellites on track.
Other upgrades include a large and quiet control room for telescope controllers, who previously were separated in different rooms and had to communicate with one another through headsets while sitting next to computers with noisy components such as cooling fans.
The controllers now sit side by side and pull up various aspects of the system on a computer screen rather than moving from one screen to another to view different programs. The controllers are separated from the computers and noisy components, which are in another room.
In a news release, Boeing Co., one of the companies that took part in the upgrades, said that it took two years to modernize and upgrade the 3.67-meter telescope, known as the Advanced Electro-Optical System. It is the nation's largest optical telescope designed for tracking satellites.
The new and improved telescope is ready to provide better imagery and surveillance of objects in near-Earth and deep space orbits, such as satellites, missiles and aircraft.
Boeing also has upgraded at least one other telescope at the complex.
Air Force officials and others from the complex said upgrades and improvements of the complex and its systems will be ongoing.
Another research advancement in the future will be the use of a sodium laser guide star, which will involve having a laser shot up in the atmosphere to simulate a star. That will help scientists study dim items in the atmosphere.
Air Force Maj. James Mikes, modernization and upgrade leader, said that the laser will be visible on Maui.
"We're not shooting (down) anything on top the mountain," he assured members of a tour after the blessing.
He said the laser helps to better study hard-to-see objects in space.
The Department of Defense began conducting research and development and operational missions on Haleakala in the 1960s at what was called the APPA Midcourse Observation Station, which is currently the Maui Space Surveillance Complex.
The station was originally built as an electro-optical observation platform for missile tests, but the site has evolved into a "world class" observatory for supporting missions in space control, missile defense, laser propagation and related fields, according to information provided by the Air Force.
In the early 1990s, the Maui High Performance Computing Center was established to provide high-speed computing capabilities to the complex.
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