From Keck Observatory: “W. M. Keck Observatory Achieves First Light with New Instrument”

Keck Observatory

Keck Observatory.
Keck, with Subaru and IRTF (NASA Infrared Telescope Facility). Vadim Kurland

Keck Observatory

Mari-Ela Chock, Communications Officer
W. M. Keck Observatory
(808) 554-0567


W. M. Keck Observatory Achieves
First Light with New Instrument
Integral field spectrograph to provide unprecedented view
of deep space

Luca Rizzi, support astronomer for W. M. Keck Observatory, gives perspective on KCWI’s size. This Caltech-built instrument is about as large as an ice cream truck and weighs five tons.


W. M. Keck Observatory has captured the very first successful science data from its newest, cutting-edge instrument, the Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI).

KCWI captures three-dimensional data, as opposed to the traditional two-dimensional image or spectrum of conventional instruments. In a single observation, it records an image of the object at multiple wavelengths allowing scientists to explore both the spatial dimension (as in an image) and the spectral dimension (or color) of an object.

“I’m thrilled to see this new instrument,” said Keck Observatory Director Hilton Lewis. “It takes years to design and build these very sophisticated instruments. KCWI is a superb example of the application of the most advanced technology to enable the hardest science. I believe it has the potential to transform the science that we do, and continue to keep Keck Observatory right at the forefront of astronomical research.”

KCWI is extremely sensitive, specifically designed to capture high-resolution spectra of ultra-faint celestial bodies with unprecedented detail. It is able to differentiate even the slightest changes in spectral color with a great degree of accuracy.

This powerful capability is key for astronomers because a highly-detailed spectral image allows them to identify a cosmic object’s characteristics, including its temperature, motion, density, mass, distance, chemical composition, and more.

KCWI is designed to study the wispy currents of gas that connect galaxies. The ability to study this “cosmic web” is the driving principle behind KCWI’s design. However, it will also be used to study many other astronomical phenomena including young stars, evolved stars, supernovae, star clusters, and galaxies.

“I’m incredibly excited. These moments happen only a few times in one’s life as a scientist,” said Principal Investigator Christopher Martin, physics professor at Caltech who developed the concept of KCWI. “To take a powerful new instrument, a tool for looking at the universe in a completely novel way, and install it at the greatest observatory in the world is a dream for an astronomer. This is one of the best days of my life.”

Martin flew in from California to join the Keck Observatory team as they worked to achieve the milestone moment on Tuesday night, April 11. The following morning, at 2:30 a.m., KCWI successfully achieved first light, with a spectral image of the core of the globular cluster Messier 3.

This “first-light” image from KCWI (middle) shows more than 100 stars in the core of the globular cluster Messier 3 (right). The boxes are positioned around some of the stars, and connect to their corresponding spectra. The green outlines showcase the highest spectral-resolution setting of KCWI. Each star has a rich spectrum of absorption lines (the dips) that contain information about the velocity and chemical composition of the star.

Since then, Keck Observatory’s team has been working diligently to install and test KCWI on Keck II, one of the twin 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes.

“KCWI will really raise the bar in terms of Keck Observatory’s capabilities,” said Anne Kinney, chief scientist at Keck Observatory. “I think it’ll become the most popular instrument we have because it will be able to do a great breadth of science, increasing our ability to understand and untangle the effects of dark matter in galaxy formation.”

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The W. M. Keck Observatory operates the largest, most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometer and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Keck Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

Today Keck Observatory is supported by both public funding sources and private philanthropy. As a 501(c)3, the organization is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), whose Board of Directors includes representatives from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, with liaisons to the board from NASA and the Keck Foundation.
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