International year of astronomy

(Big Island, Hawaii) designated “international year of astronomy” with the UN and UNESCO, 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the first observations with a telescope. On this occasion, La Presse offers a tour of the telescope Canada-France-Hawaii, which also celebrates its 30 years of existence this year.

For a moment, we do recognize the Big Dipper.

Here, south of the Tropic of Cancer, the celestial pot is so low on the horizon we have the impression that an invisible hand seized the handle to draw louchée ocean.

To the west, Venus shines in the ragged red sun. When the night is totally fallen, the stars are shining points like needles heated white. The Milky Way is nearby. Looks like a cloud stretched over our heads. astronomy

It’s cold. A strong cold and spicy. The night promises to be beautiful and quiet.

Within minutes, we appealed drunkenness. Because the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point of Hawaii, at 4204 meters, there is a third less air than sea level from one person to another, the symptoms that result range from nausea, bleeding, fatigue … fresh or impaired.

“I do only two or three months. It is too high here. There is less of reflexes, “said Daniel Devost, astronomer in residence and director of scientific operations of the telescope Canada-France-Hawaii (CFH), which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2009. An anniversary which coincides with the first observations made by Galileo and Thomas Harriot in 1609, 400 years ago.

With a mirror 3.6 meters in diameter, the CFH is not the only telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano as a place considered sacred by the natives. Twelve observatories, the most powerful feature of mirrors 10 meters, is paired on a rocky plateau above the clouds.

The purity of the sky and weather classify the top of the mountain among the top three places in the world for astronomical observation. Major discoveries have been made or validated here. Thus, using the Keck and Gemini telescopes northern neighbors CFH, a team of scientists, including Quebecers, conducted the first direct observation of extrasolar planets in 2008.

A necessary presence

In fact, all the large telescopes on the planet claim discoveries and allow astronomers to check their assumptions to better understand the genesis of the universe. The scope of work is so vast and the community that studies, so small …

But anyone who has a “romantic” of contemporary astronomy, that of a bearded sage sticky her eye on a small telescope, a telescope goes into the eye. Today, work is much more technical.

“The CFH has a committee for allocating observing time granted by the impact of scientific research and experience of the teams,” said Daniel Devost, a graduate of Laval University. In other words, it favors the comments that will result in the publication of scientific articles, the best way to ensure the sustainability of subsidies.

The office of Mr. Devost is located within the administrative center of CFH, itself located in Waimea (Kamuela or) small town of less than 10 000 inhabitants nestled 800 meters above sea level The piece looks like what we see is an office of scientific pile of books and documents, whiteboard strokes daubed hieroglyphics of the black felt, photos of his children, a globe … In one corner lies a … Santa Claus costume.

We climb into his vehicle and take a road toward the mountain switchbacks. The vegetation is scarce. We are entering in the clouds for us over them a few minutes later. A lava field discovered on one side of the road.

At 2800 meters, we stopped at a base camp for lunch and acclimatization. Everyone stops here before climbing to the summit. The technicians who operate the telescopes are housed for the duration of their work. Every day, every night, or rather, they are going back and forth between the telescope and the camp. Back at home, at sea level would be too demanding.

When night falls, they set to work. In a predetermined order by their scientific committee, they photograph different parts of the sky to meet the many orders of astronomers.

In CFH, two engineers are working all night in a room where the hum of electrical appliances is incessant. They sit facing a battery of computer monitors crossed lines of codes and numbers.

When they move the dome of the telescope, is a long complaint of twisted metal. When taking a snapshot, it does not look spectacular images of galaxies and constellations that we see in books.

The originals have rather the appearance of bright spots of magma incomprehensible. “The image processing is very important in astronomy, said Daniel Devost. Each image has its flaws, its shortcomings, to be cured. ”

Technicians clean photos of unwanted light sources and dirt due to defects in the instrument.

A kind of intergalactic Photoshop, in fact.

More projects

Inaugurated in 1979, the CFH is the result of a partnership between Canada and France (42.5% each) and the University of Hawaii (15%). “It’s a great story of collaboration, a ménage à trois, the director assures Christian Veillet. The observatory has enabled Canadian astronomy to exist so strong. ”

Whether certain types of observations or for the development of instrumentation, the CFH has rendered great services to the scientific community, “says Veillet. It can be very useful in years to come. “We have four new collaborative projects through the end of 2012,” said the director.

The administration is also engaged in a project to automate operations. The technicians will then leave the summit for the administrative center.

An undeniable sign that the CFH looking to the future.

And drunkenness Heights finally wearing his astronomer.

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