Solar Physics

Planning a program in solar physics

The main University programs on Haleakala in mid-1964 consisted of Steiger’s airglow work (with his mentor Frank Roach playing an important role) and a zodiacal-light study run by Jerry Weinberg; there was also the solar-coronal program that Hansen was bringing to fruition for the HAO. There were several other facilities on the mountain, the largest being a three-telescope complex under construction for the defense department (Project AMOS) whose objective was the optical monitoring of spacecraft and missiles. This had been started in the early 1960’s. The astronomer Aden Meinel was closely associated with AMOS and the intention seems to have been that some of its usage would be dedicated to astronomical research. Whether or not this was, so, it was never implemented. The facility was an early site of precision imaging (adaptive optics), a technology of the greatest interest to the astronomical community. But it was all highly classified and our contacts were limited to logistical matters such as who paid what for resurfacing the road.

Our group of four was to be housed, along with Walt Steiger’s program, on the fourth (top) floor of the HIG building on the University’s Manoa Campus – from where we had an uninterrupted view across Waikiki to the Pacific Ocean. Quite a few people had arrived in that heady year of 1964 to join or to initiate programs in the many areas under the HIG roof – vulcanology and other geophysics, oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, as well as solar physics, zodiacal light, and airglow. We were all very impatient to get going.

Formulating plans for new instruments at Mees was our immediate concern, and these were centered on coronagraphic equipment, since we intended to capitalize on the pure skies above Haleakala whose superb qualities had been documented by Steiger [1] in the mid-1950’s and which, of course, underlay the whole development. For help with this plan, we consulted Dick Dunn of the Sacramento Peak Observatory in New Mexico and Joe Rush of Boulder’s High Altitude Observatory, both of whom were expert in building these demanding instruments. During a week-long visit to Honolulu in September 1964, Dick laid out a conceptual design for a powerful coronagraph-spectrograph combination. This was to be our principal instrument, and we lost no time in contracting its construction to the firm of Boller and Chivens (long since subsumed into the Perkin Elmer Corporation). Fortunately, Joe Rush was able to join our staff for a year or two to oversee this contract. He also helped in the design of several smaller coronal instruments which were later installed in the Observatory. I was hoping that we would be able to build some of these in-house but this was easier said than done since we would have to start from the beginning to create this capability.[2]

Joe Rush also undertook to evaluate the daytime seeing on Haleakala using a Questar telescope to make visual observations of the sun at various sites on the mountain. He was the first, as far as I know, to draw attention to the fact that in this key parameter, too, Haleakala was a site of great promise for solar observations.

It can be no surprise that our greatest challenge was the attraction and retention of a high-quality scientific staff. The national supply of solar physicists was thin, and the demand from established observatories great, while the isolation of Hawaii posed a real problem for many. Two young people who rose to the challenge were Dick Fisher and Dick Dietz, both recent graduates from the University of Colorado via the HAO. Dietz left after a couple of years for a faculty position in Colorado, while Fisher, by then resident on Maui, used the new instrumentation to significant effect when it became available in 1967 – again demonstrating the superb quality of the site for coronal and high-resolution studies of the Sun. Another early hire was Gerry Finn from Australia who, for several years, worked with me on spectral-line formation and radiative transfer.

1. W.R. Steiger and J.W. Little, Pub. Astr. Soc. Pacific, Vol.70, p.556. 1958.

2. Under Joe Rush’s guidance the coronagraph-spectrograph for the spar at Mees Solar Observatory was completed and installed in 1967 and the first observations were begun. In the meantime several filter-based instruments had been constructed for making special-purpose images of the sun.