The UH Institute for Astronomy is conducting environmental studies to help determine where to build the full Air Force-financed Pan-STARRS array, a four-telescope system that officials hope will be fully operational by the end of 2007, either atop Haleakala or on the Big Island's Mauna Kea.
For now, Pan-STARRS Telescope No. 1 will be built on Maui as a prototype to "shake out the bugs" for a couple of years, said Ken Chambers, UH associate astronomer and chief scientist for the Maui facility.
The Air Force wants the initial telescope in operation by 2006, and even though scientists will be learning as they go, Chambers said he still expects to produce "a lot of fantastic science" during the initial phase.
The prototype - and ultimately the full array of telescopes - will survey the sky every four days. By taking a picture of the universe over and over, researchers will be able to spot potentially dangerous asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth. In concept, the information will offer the time needed to do something to change the orbit of any asteroid before it hits.
"We're due for one," Chambers said. "It could be in millions of years or it could be next week. But it will happen."
In addition to asteroids, the telescope will track other moving objects - stars, galaxies, planets, comets, supernova, gamma-ray bursters - and allow scientists to investigate the evolution of galaxies and the ultimate fate of the universe.
"It will allow us to predict the future," he said. "If we get this to work, it's going to be quite fantastic."
UH astronomer Nicholas Kaiser, chief scientist of the project, is the principal investigator, while astronomer John Tonry invented the project's detector device.