Even without a telescope, it’s possible to look off the summit of Mauna Kea and see, 14,000 feet below and dozens of miles in the distance, wide swaths of rain forest touching the whitecapped Pacific. Down there, people are doing what people come to Hawaii to do: hiking to waterfalls, lying in the sand, exposing their skin to tropical solar radiation. Up here, there is no vegetation, no warmth and very little atmosphere. And as the sun sets over the parabolic aluminum dishes of the Submillimeter Array observatory, it’s time to work.
Sheperd Doeleman, the 45-year-old MIT researcher in charge of tonight’s experiment, is setting up a piece of the radio telescope that, if all goes well, will synchronize with other radio telescopes in California and Arizona to observe matter on the verge of disappearing into a black hole. Doeleman and his counterparts on the mainland are using a technique called very long baseline interferometry to simulate a much larger instrument, which they call the Event Horizon Telescope. The longer the baseline, the higher the resolution, so these astronomers have for the past decade or so been hauling their delicate and expensive hand-built equipment to remote sites around the world, installing it anew for each observation. The work is highly improvisational, but to see what they want to see, there is no other way.