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New vision for Mauna Kea
The Honolulu Advertiser (Hawaii)
January 21, 2007

BYLINE: Kevin Dayton

UH wants to streamline astronomy by tearing down older domes

HILO, Hawai'i - A new University of Hawai'i report on the future of astronomy on Mauna Kea envisions tearing down some observatories to return the land to its original condition, but also renews the call to build a huge $1 billion telescope on an undeveloped part of the mountain.

UH is abandoning plans for a major new optical telescope called for in a master plan drafted six years ago, and will dramatically scale back plans to expand the newest observatory, the Submillimeter Array.

Most startling are the report's predictions for some of the older observatories on Mauna Kea. Rather than rebuilding or replacing those aging facilities, the plan is to "demolish the old facility, to clean the site and to recreate the site in a stage as it was, before the facility had been built."

"The long-range goal is to have eventually fewer observatories than now, but certainly still the very best in the world," according to the report by Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the UH Institute for Astronomy.

Mauna Kea is widely regarded as one of the finest sites for astronomy in the world, and the loss of an observatory on the mountain represents lost opportunities for scientists who want to do research there. In fact, there is continuing pressure for new projects.

Plans already are under way to replace a small 1968 telescope on Mauna Kea with a more modern one for use by UH-Hilo, and to replace the 88-inch UH telescope with the futuristic Pan-STARRS system designed to spot asteroids and comets that could crash into Earth.

However, Mauna Kea is also considered sacred to some Hawaiians, and the critics of development of observatories on Mauna Kea have become increasingly organized and vocal in recent years.

One recent proposal for a new facility was for the Outriggers telescopes at W.M. Keck Observatory, a project that was stalled for years by legal fights with Hawaiian activists and environmentalists. The Outriggers project was finally abandoned after NASA cut its funding last year. (See Page One for related story.)

The new UH report does not spell out which facilities might someday be removed from Mauna Kea, but it notes that the 2000 Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan identified the Canada-France-Hawai'i Telescope, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility as among the "older" facilities that might be upgraded or replaced in the years ahead.

Those three 118- to 150-inch telescopes were built in 1979, and are much smaller than the new generation of telescopes.

Christian Veillet, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawai'i Telescope, said he sees that facility continuing to do important scientific work a decade from now and beyond. In any event, the telescope has a sub-lease that extends until 2033, he said.

"Technology is improving, news ideas emerge there, new ways of doing things, which means that even a four-meter class telescope can be really great," he said.

"People can come with very clever ideas to use them even though they are considered old and small, to make it very competitive again, and so I'm not sure of the view that some of these older facilities would just close. For me, I don't know, I wouldn't bet on that right away."

Stargazer Deal

The report by the Institute for Astronomy to state lawmakers sketches out several changes in the 2000 plan for the 11,288-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve, which the state leases to the university.

The existing observatories are clustered together on 525 acres of that area, and the university sub-leases the observatory sites to various scientific partnerships for nominal cash rents. In return for the low rents, UH astronomers get to use the world-class facilities.

The partnerships - which built and maintain the optical, infrared, submillimeter and radio telescopes - allocate observation time on the telescopes for UH astronomers.

That arrangement allowed the UH astronomy program to rapidly develop into one of the best in the world, according to the report, and made Mauna Kea the world's largest astronomy complex with a dozen observatories.

The report outlines a number of changes in the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan:

  • The Harvard-Smithsonian Submillimeter Array, which is made up of 12 movable radio telescope antennas distributed over 24 fixed concrete pads, was expected to add 12 more antennas and 24 new concrete pads. However, the new plan envisions only the "very moderate expansion" of two more antennas and two more pads, according to the report.

    The university is also working on reallocating two existing antenna pads at the base of the culturally significant site of Pu'u Poliahu, according to the report.

  • The old master plan allowed future development of a new observatory comparable to Keck or Gemini North, two of the largest in the world, but the new plan abandons that idea.

    With the enormously increased efficiencies of Keck, Gemini, and Subaru, we do not believe that there is a scientific need any more for another telescope of this size," according to the report.

  • The only new telescope site proposed is for the Thirty-Meter Telescope, a $1 billion project the report calls "the most ambitious project of modern astronomy." No location has been selected yet for the project, and UH hopes to have it built on Mauna Kea.

    "It will have an enormous scientific, educational and economic impact and it will secure leadership of Hawai'i in astronomical science for the next decades," according to the report. "This is the key project for the future of astronomy in Hawai'i."

The Critics

However, that project is sure to face opposition. Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, cited published accounts that the Thirty-Meter Telescope would have a dome comparable in size to a football stadium.

Mauna Kea Anaina Hou is an organization of Hawaiian cultural practitioners with ties to the mountain.

Pisciotta and other critics of Mauna Kea summit development have repeatedly called on the university to refrain from disturbing new sites to build observatories. Some of those critics, including Pisciotta, have said they are open to projects that reuse existing sites.

In any event, a ruling by Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara made it clear there can be no additional state permits issued for any development on the mountain until the university develops a comprehensive management plan for Mauna Kea, Pisciotta said.

"The whole discussion is really out of order until they comply with the conditions of the court decision," she said.

Reach at (808) 935-3916.

Go online to read the full UH report on its plan for Mauna Kea astronomy facilities and view video of how large-mirror observatories work. Then join the conversation: post your comments on this story.

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