How the Stars Were Born

For the first time ever, scientists are taking an incredible journey to the dawn of the universe

  • Richard Ellis paces impatiently back and forth across a small room lined with computer terminals, trying to contain his mounting frustration. The British-born astronomer, now at Caltech, has been granted a single precious night to use one of the twin Keck telescopes, among the most powerful in the world. Last night he and his observing partner, a graduate student named Dan Stark, flew 3,000 miles, from Southern California to Hawaii, where the Kecks are located. And during most of the afternoon and early evening today, they've made their final plans for the "run," as astronomers call a night of peering into the heavens.

    But things are not going right. It isn't the weather, which is what usually trips up stargazers. Here at Keck headquarters in the sleepy town of Waimea, nestled in the midst of cattle-ranching country on Hawaii's Big Island, thick clouds are scudding past, occasionally dipping low enough to send a driving mist across the grassy hills. But the telescopes are some 25 miles away and more than two miles up, in the thin, frigid air at the summit of the extinct volcano Mauna Kea. At an altitude of nearly 14,000 ft., the observatory sits well above the cloud deck. Live video-camera images piped down to the Waimea control room show white domes silhouetted against a fading but crystal-clear sky.

    The problem is that Keck 2, the scope Ellis and Stark have been assigned for the night, stubbornly refuses to focus. Time and again, the professional telescope operator who sits in a control room up on the summit and actually runs the mammoth instrument has issued the command that tells it to focus. Time and again, the focusing routine has responded to his commands by crashing. For half an hour, engineers have been trying to figure out what is going on--while the first of the precious celestial objects on Ellis and Stark's observing schedule sinks inexorably toward the horizon. "This is pretty profound," says Ellis, bitterly. "If you can't focus the telescope, you're stuffed."

    No astronomer likes to be cheated out of an observing night, whether the quarry is a mundane moon of Jupiter or an exotic quasar halfway across the cosmos. But Ellis has special cause for frustration: he's looking for something far more elusive than any quasar. Tonight he intended to bag something most astronomers consider next to impossible: the most distant galaxy ever seen--and not the farthest by just a little bit. The current record for distance, held by another giant Mauna Kea observatory, Japan's Subaru telescope, is for a galaxy whose light started its journey to Earth a billion years or so after the Big Bang. But Ellis and Stark suspect they have found not one but six galaxies from an astonishing half a billion years earlier still. Tonight's run could confirm it.

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