Take a Virtual Peek Over a Working Astronomer’s Shoulder

What happens when a charismatic astronomy professor, isolated from his students by the Covid-19 pandemic, connects with a Native Hawaiian organization with a passion for cosmic discovery? You get one of the pandemic’s silver linings, a golden opportunity for Hawaiʻi’s youth to peer over the shoulder of working space scientists as they do real research on the cosmos.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, University of California Santa Cruz astronomy professor Puragra GuhaThakurta, who goes by Raja, found himself having to adapt to the university’s public health policy by working with students virtually, using the Zoom video meeting app as he remotely operated the Keck and Subaru telescopes atop the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. The sessions went so well that he decided to invite other groups to participate, including Ohana Kila Hoku, a Native Hawaiian astronomy group.
A former student, Heather Kaluna, had drawn his attention to the organization when he indicated that he wanted to invite indigenous people from around the world to take part. A 2002 graduate of Pahoa High School, Kaluna had joined his Santa Cruz team  in 2007, measuring the distance of far-away galaxies, and went on to become the first person of Native Hawaiian descent to earn a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo in 2015.
Ohana Kila Hoku was founded by Chad Kālepa Baybayan, legendary celestial navigator and pioneering captain in the Polynesian voyaging renaissance of the 1970s that spawned the construction of the double-hulled voyaging canoe, Hōkūle‘a, as well as the Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalakaʻi, all of which he once helmed. The group’s purpose is to promote astronomy and space science education in celebration of the spirit of discovery that was core to ancient Polynesian culture. Baybayan passed away in April. Ohana Kila Hoku  is now helmed by attorney Samuel Wilder King II, great grandson of the state’s first Native Hawaiian governor.
For the past six months, or so, as a result of the collaboration, Hawaiʻi science students have been invited to observe GuhaThakurta and his colleagues from all over the world as they take photographs and perform spectral analysis of distant bodies, clusters, and structures. Public Zoom sessions are scheduled whenever the team is able to arrange telescope time on the mountain, usually about twice a month.

“To allow the most powerful telescopes in the world–very expensive telescopes–to be operated by individuals sitting at home is a huge risk,” explained GuhaThakurta. “But they took that risk and ‘pajama mode’ observing was born.” He explained that his home computer just serves as a portal, allowing him to access the massive computing power at the observatories, themselves.

Students log in to a Zoom meeting in the evening, typically at 7:15 or 7:30 p.m., and can stay as long as they want until the session ends at about 6:00 a.m. Past programs began in the middle of the night, but by starting earlier, they are able to spend more time on the telescope. Questions can be posed by text and the scientists use their free time, while making long exposures or doing data analysis, to engage with the observers and answer questions. “You’re going to be a fly on the wall,” explains GuhaThakurta. “And we’ll find time when we’re not so busy with the experiment that we can look up and explain to you what we’re doing with the telescope.”
“A lot of the time you’re just letting starlight to collect in the telescope, so they have these long down times, and they love answering questions,” Ohana Kila Hoku Executive Director King elaborated, “They’re used to working in the cold where nobody pays any attention to them, ever, right?”
Participants share the screen that the astronomers use to operate the telescope, so it can be rather cluttered. For this reason, student faces aren’t shown in the Zoom chat room and they are asked to remain muted unless called upon to ask a question. “It’s not curated content. We want it to be real,” said GuhaThakurta. “I think people really respond well to the authenticity.”
On one evening in January, more than 200 participants were able to join a team working remotely from Italy, China, California, and Hawaiʻi as they observed a grouping of galaxies known as the Hyperion proto-supercluster through the Subaru Telescope. Using a technique called narrowband imaging, which employs specialized filters to take pictures that are sensitive to the star-forming regions of galaxies, they are able to measure distances between galaxies within the structure, and determine which areas contain galaxies that are rapidly forming stars.
Hyperion, the largest and earliest known proto-supercluster, has 5,000 times the mass of the Milky Way and, due to its vast distance from the Earth, we are seeing it at only 20% of the current age of the universe. It was discovered in 2018 by analyzing the redshifts of 10,000 objects observed with the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Redshift is a measurable increase in the wavelength of light caused by objects moving apart, similar to the Doppler effect that changes the pitch of a train whistle as it passes by. Sound waves compressed by the movement of the train towards you sound higher. Likewise, the pitch of the whistle gets lower as the train moves away from you, stretching out the waves. The same is true of light waves emitted by objects moving away from us as the universe expands.
While it’s geared towards astronomy students, anyone is welcome to participate in the Shadow an Astronomer program. Events are scheduled March 4, April 4 and 5, and May 2 and all are free of charge. You can request an invitation, or watch videos of previous sessions, by visiting Ohana Kila Hoku at ohanakilahoku.org.

Dan Collins