Look inside the volcano-top Haleakalā High Altitude Observatory

  • The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office Image credit: NASA
  • The Advanced Electro Optical System Telescope at the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing observatory. Image credit: Air Force Research Laboratory
Date:13 March 2017 Tags:, ,

The Haleakalā High Altitude Observatory Site is the oldest astronomical observatory in Hawaii, positioned above 10,000 feet in altitude on the crest of a dormant volcano on Maui. Haleakalā, also known as the East Maui Volcano, is one of the best places on U.S. soil for observing the sky, so it should come as little surprise that the Air Force has set up shop there.

By Jay Bennett

Over half a dozen sophisticated telescopes and optical instruments at the Haleakalā High Altitude Observatory, which is owned by the University of Hawaii, are operated by the U.S. Air Force. Multiple observation programs make up the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Observatory, which was formerly called the Air Force Maui Optical Station, or AMOS, a name you might recognize.

Although AMOS is constantly tracking any artificial objects like satellites and space stations, it is also looking for potentially hazardous natural objects such as near-Earth asteroids. But most of the time, things are pretty quiet up at AMOS, and the Air Force Research Laboratory astronomers stationed there have the chance work closely with the University of Hawaii on science projects.

AMOS has discovered over 60 minor planets, many in the asteroid belt, including 8721 AMOS which is named after the observatory. Some of the first research to develop laser guidance systems for telescopes was done at AMOS, using a 0.6 meter laser beam director to project an artificial star on the sky to calibrate the telescopes. The technique is now used by a number of the most advanced observatories in the world, such as the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in the high Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

In addition to the two-foot laster pointer, the Air Force operates the 3.67-meter Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS), the United States’ largest optical telescope for tracking satellites, and the Maui Optical Tracking and Identification Facility (MOTIF), which includes two 1.2-meter telescopes bolted to a common mount, as well as a number of other telescopes. The AMOS facilities also include a machine shop, an optics lab, and an electronics lab.

Patiently monitoring the skies with the primary purpose of providing national security, the AMOS observatory has become one of the most important research facilities for astronomical study.

Image credit: NASA

Video credit: Gung Ho Vids



This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.