Astronomical Myths & Facts

This our first in what we hope becomes a series of Observatory Intelligence Quotient (O.I.Q.) quizzes. Ready, set, go! 

1) TRUE or FALSE? Keck astronomers are easily identified in the streets of Waimea because they all have bloodshot eyes from spending nights looking through the eyepieces of the telescopes at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. 

2) TRUE or FALSE? Since they all live in Hawaii, Keck astronomers are the envy of astronomers all over the world.

3) TRUE or FALSE? The Keck telescopes can be used to watch sunbathers at Hapuna Beach.

4) TRUE or FALSE? The Keck Telescopes are not owned by anyone in particular, not even the Keck Foundation.

5) TRUE or FALSE? Astronomers who come from other places to use the Keck telescopes don’t pay a cent to use them.

6) TRUE or FALSE? Keck and other observatories are off the grid – using no commercially generated electricity.

Now let’s check your answers:

1) FALSE! Doubly false, really. First of all, astronomers no longer look through eyepieces of large research telescopes. That was only in the old days. The light from the cosmos is now collected by much more sensitive CCDs, specialized versions of the same devices that make images in your digital camera or cell phone. So astronomers see what the telescopes see via computer monitors, which are a lot easier on the eyes. The other falsehood is about where astronomers do their viewing. It’s not up on Mauna Kea but in far more oxygen-rich Waimea town. There are two control rooms at Keck headquarters, one for each telescope, called Remote Ops 1 and Remote Ops 2. These are the nerve centers of the Keck telescopes where astronomers do their research every night of the year.

2) FALSE. While there are some Support Astronomers who live here (and yes, they love their jobs), most of the scores of astronomers who use the Keck Telescopes each year come from universities on the mainland, Oahu or Australia. The main users are astronomers from Caltech, the University of California and the University of Hawaii. There are also astronomers from Yale University and Swinburne University in Australia, who have agreements with Caltech to use some of their telescope time. The entire U.S. astronomy community has access to Keck through NASA and the National Science Foundation.  Interestingly, the University if Hawaii gets all its highly prized telescope time in exchange for allowing observatories to exist on state land in Mauna Kea. With access to all the magnificent telescopes on Mauna Kea, this exchange has helped to make the UH’s Institute for Astronomy a leading center for astronomy research. 

3) FALSE. While it’s true the Keck telescopes could theoretically study your toenails from that distance, there are several reasons they don’t. One is that astronomers are not interested in your toenails. Another is that the telescopes can’t actually aim any lower than the horizon, and the beaches along the Kohala Coast are below the horizon. Finally, the telescopes are never open during the day, when you are sunbathing. With primary mirrors 10-meters across, it’s just too dangerous. Even a glancing spray of sunshine reflected off the mirrors could be concentrated into a hazardous, metal-melting solar furnace.

4) TRUE. Like all the observatories on Mauna Kea, Keck Observatory is not owned by a group of corporate businessmen whose aim is to maximize profits. Keck Observatory is a 501 C (3) nonprofit organization operated as a full-time research facility. The “profits” of Keck Observatory are not financial but intellectual—which are shared with all of humanity. Operations are supported largely by the University of California and NASA. Added to this are hard earned public grants and private donations. So why, then is it called the W.M. Keck Observatory? Because the Keck Foundation supplied the money to build the telescopes and facilities. The name honors that massively generous capital grant.

5) TRUE. Astronomers can be penniless (and some are) and still use the Keck Telescopes. That’s because the cost of operating the facility is managed by the Observatory. In this way Keck Observatory is no different than any other shared, non-profit research facility – like a marine science lab or medical research facility. That said, astronomers can’t just walk in and use the telescopes whenever they want. They compete fiercely for timeslots on the telescopes. They have to submit written proposals to apply for observing time. And because there are more proposals than there are nights to observe, only about one-in-five proposals are accepted. The result is a constant flow of great science from the Keck telescopes. 

6) FALSE. Observatories have to pay electricity bills too. Keck Observatory pays about $90,000 per month for electricity to operate the telescopes at the summit. And you thought your power bill was unruly! A lot of the electricity Keck uses is to keep the telescopes at a constant chill – day and night – so that there is no expanding and contraction or thermal optical effects when the domes are opened for observing. At night huge fans are used to move the air the inside of the domes to keep them at the same temperature as outside, and refrigeration is used during the day to counter the Sun’s intense rays. The reason the domes are painted white is to help keep them cooler. Making the bill even more expensive, of course, is the independent reality of electricity in Hawaii: until more of our power is generated by alternative energy sources, it has to be made by burning expensive, imported fossil fuels. 

Your O.I.Q.
If you got 4 or 6 correct, congratulations! You are a steely-eyed telescope wizard. If you managed 2 or 3 correct, no worries. You only need a little brushing up. If you got one or zero correct, there is hope for you: visit our website at or our Headquarters Visitor Center in Waimea to become a member of Keck Nation. And start attending the free Keck Astronomy Lectures in Waimea or watch them online. It’s guaranteed to raise your O.I.Q.