Telescopes & Research, Page 4

Steve Larson, on Kuiper’s search for telescope sites

I grew up under Kuiper’s style. Most of the great investigators and scientists at the time of course were very proud of their work and worked hard to maintain their position in the field and all that. But Kuiper was of such stature, all the people in the lab basically went along with what he dictated.

He was fully aware of the fact that in the post-Apollo era of NASA it might be difficult to get funding for the kind of research that was going on at the time. So he started looking at other sources. He was spending a fair amount of time with a colleague in Mexico, Guillermo Haro, who was interested in striking up collaboration with American observatories. They had some money at the time to build an observatory, so he spent time site testing for new observatories. He used to fly down to places like Southern Baja with small telescopes, to see what the seeing was like.

One of Kuiper’s true legacies was identification and establishment of what are considered now great observatories. He was the primary ruler in establishing Mauna Kea observatory, and in fact the first telescope set up there to do site testing was an LPL telescope, a little 12-inch telescope that was used to determine how good the seeing was. An observer went there for several months out of the year. That kicked things off at what many people now consider now the premier ground-based site.

Funny as things went, that was sitting on a cinder cone that is now considered sacred, and there is no telescope there. It’s the one peak that has no telescope. All the telescopes are on other ones nearby. He was getting ready to put a proposal to NSF to build telescopes up there with Harvard, and the Hawaiian politicians got involved, saying Hawaii should be involved, so they ended up going another route to develop the telescopes. But he also, in conjunction with the Mexicans, helped established the San Pedro Mártir Observatory in Northern Baja. In fact the crew that attended the telescopes here took a month off and went down there and actually plowed the road to the top. That turned out to be a very good site.

He was always looking for high sites. He had looked at the San Francisco peak, Agassiz Peak as a high altitude site. The higher you go, of course, the less water vapor you have to look out through, which absorb infrared radiation, so you want to be in tall mountains. His search for the ideal infrared site was one of the reasons they named the Kuiper Airborne Observatory aircraft, the C-141, which was used with a 36-inch telescope for many years.

Of course Kuiper had worked hard to establish the telescopes on the Catalinas, and had in fact, when the Air Force vacated their summit with the radar site, wrote a proposal to use that for a site, which is still used today.

William Hartmann, on the Mauna Kea telescope site

In the summer of ’64, Kuiper was the first person to get the idea that there should be observatories on Mauna Kea, or at least that Mauna Kea might be a fantastically good site for observatories. This is funny because what they were looking for was lack of water vapor. Water vapor absorbs the infrared light coming in through the atmosphere, so you want to get up above it. You’d think the worst place would be out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But Mauna Kea is so big—14,000 feet—it sticks up above most of it. Kuiper hit on this idea of going up there and seeing if there could be an observatory there.

Kuiper had a history of hiring interesting, off-beat people, like Ewen Whitaker. He had been the head of the lunar section of the British Astronomical Association, which is basically an amateur association. Another example was Alika Herring, a guy who built very high quality amateur-sized telescopes, and Kuiper hired him to come in and take his homemade telescope down to Hawaii and do site testing down there.

In the spring of 1964, Alika had been down there for a couple of months, I guess, living up at the 10,000 foot level in little stone cabins that were sort of Ranger cabins and then driving up to the 14,000 foot level at night. Okay, time for Alika to have a vacation. Kuiper sends young Bill, me, down to Hawaii.

That was the first time I had ever been to Hawaii. I just completely fell in love with the Big Island; it’s such a wonderful place to be. Kuiper said, “Now, you take some days off and go down to see the volcano part, because this is part of your training, and see craters and lava flows and all of that,” which I had not seen before, coming from Pennsylvania. So I did site testing down there, for what became Mauna Kea Observatory.

Some years passed, and that turns into a big world-class observatory. By the 1980s, Dale Cruikshank, my buddy who had worked on the spectrometers for Kuiper, had gone off to the University of Hawaii and is doing infrared spectrometry, and following exactly the footsteps that Kuiper had trained him in.