For astronomers who work on the Mauna Kea telescopes in Hawaii, the trip is no junket: It takes a day or more of flying and a 2-hour ride on treacherous roads to reach the chilly 4200-meter summit, where they sometimes battle altitude sickness. Their hardship travel may soon become less common. A new high-speed data link to the U.S. mainland will pave the way for operating the world-class Gemini and Keck telescopes without setting foot on the island of Hawaii.
Actually, the old way of doing astronomy was already on the way out. Since 1997 most scientists have operated Mauna Kea's two 10-meter Keck telescopes from a nearby town, using videoconferencing and computer control panels identical to those at the top; the year-old 8-meter Gemini North telescope has a similar setup. And astronomers will soon be able to run the Kecks from the continental United States. Announced last week, the high-speed connection, which uses a Defense Department undersea cable from Oahu island to California, provides a 45-million-bit-per-second link to the still-faster Internet2 backbone connecting U.S. research universities.
Distant astronomers won't be able to operate a Keck from any old computer; you'd have to rely on the slowpoke regular Internet for the last kilometer or so, and there are security concerns. ("We don't want hackers moving a 600-ton telescope," explains Gemini's Jim Kennedy.) Instead, astronomers will work from a special room linked to Internet2, such as one at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, that should be operating by July, serving the 40 or so Keck users there, says Lick Observatory's Robert Kibrick. Several other UC campuses hope to jack in by year's end.
For Gemini North, whose twin telescope is nearing completion in Chile, the near-term goal is remote control from either Chile or Hawaii by way of an Internet2 link between the United States and Chile planned for next year.