Sponsored by the nonprofit partnership of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory
The best astronomical research in the world is happening on Maunakea. It is home to the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world, making Hawaii the international leader in astronomical science. If built on Maunakea, the Thirty Meter Telescope will provide unparalleled resolution with images more than about 10 times sharper than those from the Keck Observatory and Hubble Space Telescopes and enable new discoveries in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics.
Dr. Heather Kaluna is the assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, born and raised in Pahoa. After completing her BA in Mathematics and Physics at UH Hilo, she pursued her PhD at UH Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher after graduate school at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and got a position at UH Hilo where she can do research and teach astronomy and physics.
Along with being a local girl with a career in astronomy and science, Dr. Kaluna is also a Native Hawaiian. “While my father taught me what he knew of our culture, he was of a generation where Hawaiian culture was actively suppressed,” she explains. She says the majority of what she learned in terms of how her culture and astronomy intersect has come from her own pursuit of knowledge. “No where else in the world can you pursue a degree in astronomy while also learning about traditional Hawaiian practices.”
Dr. Kaluna says that while many people refer to navigation as the connection between Hawaiian culture and astronomy, there are far more ways that astronomy is embedded within the culture: Makahiki marks the Hawaiian new year with the rise of Makali’i at sunset, lunar phases and the intimate relationship with farming and fishing practices, and the birth of King Kamehameha was heralded by the passage of Halley’s Comet.
“From big to small, some of the most important recent scientific discoveries relied on data using the observatories atop Maunakea,” she says. Keck observations confirmed the existence of the first Earth-sized planet around another star. Smaller telescopes on Mauna Kea and Haleakala are also the world’s leaders in detecting and studying near-earth asteroids, including those that may put the earth at risk. Recently, the first object from interstellar space, a comet named ‘Oumuamua from a distant star system, was discovered and characterized by these telescopes. In addition, observations made with CFHT and Keck revealed that the Universe’s rate of expansion is accelerating due to ‘dark energy.’ This discovery earned the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. Discovery of the Kuiper Belt, which eventually led to Pluto no longer being considered a planet, was done using the UH 2.2m.
“Hawaii’s observatories have always been on the forefront in scientific discoveries, and having a ground-breaking telescope like TMT will keep Hawaii on that cutting edge,” Dr. Kaluna says. “By continuing to have the latest advanced technology like TMT, Hawaii will continue to lead the astronomy field and continue to be the best place in the world to study the stars.”