The first telescope built atop Mauna Kea was tiny by today’s standards, an 88-inch instrument that astronomers hoped would reveal new details about the universe, and draw the world’s best researchers to a mountain relatively unknown in the scientific community.

More than half a century after site testing began, that University of Hawaii telescope is still used — along with a dozen others that have transformed Mauna Kea into one of the most famous sites for astronomical observation on Earth.

Countries from around the world pour millions of dollars each year into supporting research there, taking advantage of the location’s unique combination of high altitude, dark skies and stable atmosphere.

Yet even as crews get ready to begin work on the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope — still on hold Monday as state officials and the telescope builder try to work a compromise with Native Hawaiian protestors who have brought construction to a halt — other observatories on the mountain struggle to maintain funding and remain fully operational.

Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope

An artist’s concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope observatory on Mauna Kea at lower left, with existing observatories in the background.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

No telescope operators are getting rich off Mauna Kea, and that figures to remain the case even with TMT.

One telescope is broken. Another is slated for decommissioning starting next year. A third may soon be operated by a for-profit corporation.

And while the scientific value of the telescopes continues to surpass anything imaginable in the 1960s, opponents of the telescopes question if the state is getting a fair cut of the research money.

“For us the money really doesn’t matter because the mountain is priceless. But the state taxpayers of Hawaii should know they really are subsidizing this astronomy business,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokeswoman for the protest movement who is also party to the lawsuits attempting to block TMT. “It’s astronomy that is getting a benefit from Hawaii, not the other way around.”

Annual $1 Leases

There are currently 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea, all built on public land leased to the University of Hawaii for $1 a year and then subleased for another $1.

In addition to the token payment, each telescope contributes funds to maintaining a visitor center and road repairs.

The telescopes belong to various national and international groups, in part because of a concerted effort in the 1970s by UH’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) to broaden Hawaii’s appeal as a top-notch place for research.

“People get this wacky idea that astronomers show up with a Visa card and we charge them a fee. It doesn’t work like that.” — Douglas Simons, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

“I would like to believe that already our sights were set for an international stage,” IfA founding director John T. Jefferies wrote of the institution’s early expansion efforts.

UH owns, at least in part, five of the 13 telescopes. One belongs to NASA. Japan, Canada, France, Taiwan — and until recently the United Kingdom — all have stakes in Mauna Kea.

Most of the observatories were built with a combination of grants, funding from research institutions, universities and philanthropic donations. Once operational, they are financed almost entirely with tax dollars from one or more countries.

Typically a telescope is funded and utilized by a group of partners — big universities with robust research programs or governmental agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.

At nearly all the telescopes on Mauna Kea, the partners for each share the cost of operations and divvy up the viewing time based on their financial contribution.


Canada, the newest funding partner for TMT, plans to pay 15 percent of the building costs for the telescope. The expectation — or hope at least — is that Canada will then continue to pay for 15 percent of the telescope’s annual operating budget in return for roughly 15 percent of the available viewing time, said Sandra Dawson, TMT Hawaii community affairs manager.

Astronomers from around the world submit research proposals to the observatory or its partner institutions and compete for viewing time. The projects are peer-reviewed for merit, and there is never enough viewing time.

The W.M Keck Observatory, which currently operates the two largest telescopes on the mountain, typically turns down about 80 percent of proposals because of time constraints.

There is no mechanism in place at telescopes like the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope for an astronomer or an organization to “book” a night of viewing and pay for it just because it wants to take a look.

“People get this wacky idea that astronomers show up with a Visa card and we charge them a fee,” Simons said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Peering Into Deep Space

Dark Matter. Supernovas. The escalating speed of our expanding universe.

Name a major astronomical discovery from the last four decades, and chances are at least one of the observatories on Mauna Kea played a role in the research.

Astronomers used Keck to pinpoint the center of our galaxy. Keck and NASA’s Infrared Telescope — also on Mauna Kea — detected methane on Mars. Mauna Kea’s Gemini Telescope and Keck helped discover the first known and potentially habitable Earth-sized planet in 2014.

Keck Jupiter screen shot

A false-color composite near-infrared image of Jupiter taken by the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea. Image Credit: Imke de Pater, Michael Wong (UC Berkeley); Al Conrad (Keck Observatory), and Chris Go (Cebu, RP)

Courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory

Some of the telescopes are also used to develop technologies for use in the observatories. Sometimes this means creating a technology can have other applications, and other times the process involves taking an existing technology and adapting it.

For example, sometimes the military will develop a new technology, like a giant sensor chip for recording images, said Don Hall, a tenured professor and former director at IfA. Then researchers will partner with companies to adapt that technology for low-light use in astronomy.

Although the university researchers never work on technology for military use, Hall said, in some instances the upgrades piggyback off each other. A military use is improved for astronomy and then that improvement is taken up by the military.

Telescopes on Mauna Kea have also been used to track asteroids and space debris, and support unmanned space missions and the work of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Every year astronomers publish hundreds of research papers based on data gathered on the mountain. And they dream of bigger discoveries with the Thirty Meter Telescope, which will have nine times the collecting area of the largest telescope currently on Mauna Kea. 

“The quest for other life in the universe, and at least finding places where we think there could be life, is an area that TMT can address,” said Robert McLaren, associate director of the IfA. “And it can’t be done in any really efficient way with the current telescopes.”

By the time TMT is completed, however, there will be another telescope with similar capabilities. The European Southern Observatory — financially supported by more than a dozen European countries — is constructing a 39 meter telescope in Chile.

Still, the Mauna Kea observatories sit at about twice the elevation of the European Extremely Large Telescope location in Chile, and Mauna Kea is a good site for observing both optical and short wavelength or submillimeter radio waves. The sites in Chile that are good for submillimeter are not good for optical viewing and vice versa, McLaren said. This means astronomers can make a greater range of observations from Mauna Kea.

The Business Side 

Exploring space — even from the ground — isn’t cheap.

Forget about making money for a university, observatory directors say, operating a telescope is all about scrambling to cover enormous costs with often-dwindling resources. Public funding is hard to come by these days.

“Few things annoy me more than being accused of generating revenue,” said Douglas Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which is operated by a nonprofit corporation. “Because that would actually be illegal.”

CFHT’s annual budget is around $7 million. The Keck Observatory — which has the largest telescopes on the mountain — spent $22.9 million in 2013, about $500,000 more than it took in through grant funding and donations.

Keck crew

The Keck summit crew showing off the mirror of the Keck telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea.

Courtesy of Rick Peterson

Salaries consume the biggest chunk of a telescope’s budget. Keck employs about 120 people. The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope has a staff of around 45. The median salary at CFHT is roughly $80,000 a year, Simons said.

Most of jobs are technical in nature — mechanical and software engineers, technicians tasked with maintaining and troubleshooting complex mechanical systems. About 15 percent of a telescope’s staff are astronomers who work to set up observations and collect the data that outside astronomers need.

And then there’s the cost of cooling the telescope domes to zero degrees centigrade during the day, so the equipment is kept at the same temperature as the night air. The utility bills are, well, astronomical.

One way that observatories are saving cash is by increasing the amount of viewing that is done remotely. Think astronomers do most of their work at the observatory looking through a telescope? Think again.

When Simons was a graduate student, on any given night 70 to 100 astronomers and technicians would travel to the telescopes. Now it’s an army of tourists that make their way up the mountain road to gaze at the stars, while most astronomers are hunkered down at local offices or viewing from thousands of miles away.

CHFT’s funding has been frozen for several years, Simons said, and hasn’t kept up with inflation. The observatory has cut back on electricity use, investing in solar power and looking for other ways to improve efficiency.

A lack of funding has left UH Hilo’s educational telescope inoperable for five years, while the campus tries to raise the funds to replace busted equipment.

The oldest telescope on the mountain, IfA’s 2.2 meter telescope, has experienced “significant” downtime in recent years because of mechanical issues. Instrumentation failure. Old software. A broken windscreen. The hydraulic drive for the dome failed, spilling “many gallons” of oil on the dome floor.

And a frozen budget, it seems, is a much better scenario than that of several other telescopes facing drastic cuts.

After the United Kingdom dropped out of its 24 percent funding partnership in Gemini, operators of the telescope restructured its operations and laid off about 40 employees, said Simons, who was the director of Gemini at the time.

Gemini is also instituting a “limited-term collaboration” system where entities that are not long-term partners can make a contribution to operations in return for viewing time, according to the National Science Foundation. Any funding from these temporary collaborations will be used directly to support telescope operations.

The Subaru Telescope is currently working on a major reconfiguration of its operations in anticipation of TMT, which will also receive funding from Japan, Simons said.

“When new telescopes come around, the federal agencies tend to put pressure to cut back on older facilities,” Simons said.

“The quest for other life in the universe, and at least finding places where we think there could be life, is an area that TMT can address. And it can’t be done in any really efficient way with the current telescopes.” —Robert McLaren, UH Institute for Astronomy

The California Institute of Technology kept its submillimeter telescope operational for several years after the National Science Foundation pulled its funding, but plans to decommission it starting next year.

Other struggling telescopes will remain — but under terms that may benefit corporations in addition to nonprofit research institutions.

The National Science Foundation is currently reviewing proposals for a new operator for Gemini. The list of applicants is not public, but the RFP process was open to for-profit American corporations with a science focus.

Two telescopes that faced decommissioning after the U.K. pulled its funding — the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope — were transferred to UH ownership in the last year.

JCMT is now operated by the East Asian Observatories Association, which is registering in Hawaii as a nonprofit. NASA is funding UKIRT through a partnership with UH, University of Arizona and aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin. The funding is only guaranteed for a year, and Lockheed declined to reveal how much its contract with NASA is for.

Lockheed is being paid by NASA to study debris in space that could threaten satellites. As a part of the agreement, the company is receiving a “limited amount” of viewing time for research on its own projects.

That research will have to be made public and shared. But it will also provide a clear benefit to Lockheed, which was awarded a contract worth up to $1.5 billion last year to build a space surveillance system for the Air Force. Space Fence is supposed to track objects that could collide with U.S. assets in space.

Lockheed invests in this type of science research with academic partners to “improve its optical capabilities looking into space from the ground,” a spokesman said.

A Benefit to the University

Just because UH isn’t collecting rent doesn’t mean the university isn’t benefitting from the presence of the telescopes. In return for the land, UH gets the valuable gift of time.

Each telescope on the mountain gives UH anywhere from 7.5 percent to 15 percent of its viewing time, depending on the lease agreement.

It’s a benefit worth millions of dollars, and allows university faculty and graduate students to conduct research they might be unable to do otherwise.

TMT, for example, expects to shell out about $39 million a year in operational and development costs once the big telescope is up and running. The value of 7.5 percent of the viewing time — what the university might be expected to pay if it was an operational partner of TMT —  would be $2.9 million.

TMT, which is the only telescope that will pay actual rent, will also give the university the lowest percentage of viewing time.

Universities can benefit from robust research programs in other ways, too.

Most research is funded through federal grants, which the university can keep a percentage of in exchange for providing things like office space and administrative support. In 2014, IfA brought in $3.35 million in federal funding for UH that way.

Still, that’s much less than what UH’s annual IfA budget, which is $10.5 million this year.

UH has also spent $3.8 million since 2010 fighting lawsuits against TMT and the Office of Mauna Kea Management.

And while some university research programs rake in big bucks from patents, there’s not much money to be made in the technologies IfA works to develop because there’s no real consumer application, Hall said.

Finally, good research programs can play a huge role in raising a university’s profile and reputation.

“Program visibility and recognition are like magnets – they attract attention, funding, prestige,” explains Jane Lubchenco, the former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is now a professor at Oregon State University and U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean at the U.S. State Department.

IfA and the observatories atop Mauna Kea are among the top-ranked research institutions in the country as measured by grant funding and the number of research papers produced each year.

Faculty at IfA expected their graduate program to be ranked fifth or sixth out of 33 astronomy programs in the country by the National Research Council survey of Graduate Programs, a study published every 10 years.

Thirty Meter Telescope Mauna Kea top view

An artist depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

“Thus we were surprised to see that our rank had dropped into the lowest quartile,” they wrote in a 2012 “Self Study” document.

The report notes, however, that confusing calculations about the number of faculty members in the program may have unfairly impacted UH’s rankings.

This semester, UH enrolled 34 astronomy majors and five astrophysics majors at its Manoa campus and another 33 astronomy majors in Hilo. From 2008 to 2012, the university’s graduate program in astronomy received on average 112 applications a year, and offered admission to roughly 20 percent of applicants.

“Who benefits from (the telescopes) are a few people within one program of the entire university system,” student and anti-TMT activist Ilima Long said.

IfA points out in its self study, however, that its faculty members teach introductory astronomy to more than 800 undergraduate students each year at Manoa.

More Money to Be Made? 

The planned Thirty Meter Telescope — by far the largest on the mountain — will be the first telescope to pay cash rent. That’s in part, TMT’s Dawson said, because of a recognition that Hawaii should be getting more than just viewing time in exchange for the space.

According to its sublease agreement with the university, TMT rent starts at $300,000 a year and increases to $1 million when construction is complete. Of that, $200,000 a year will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the rest will go to the Office of Mauna Kea Management.

TMT will also pay $1 million a year for high-tech job training, and an additional $1 million annually toward Science Technology Engineering and Math education in Hawaii.

If the viewing conditions on Mauna Kea really are the best in the world, that’s simply not enough to pay, say opponents of the project.

“If you were the CEO of Apple or IBM, you would lose your job over that deal,” UH Hawaiian history professor and director of the Hawaiian Studies Center Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa recalls telling university president David Lassner at a recent meeting. “Why is the university not making more money off this?”

Kame’eleihiwa — who opposes the construction of TMT — believes that if telescopes are going to be on the mountain, then operators should pay a “desecration tax” that can benefit students and the people of Hawaii. She suggests $40 million a year, per telescope.

“Some of those telescopes are owned by other countries,” said Kame’eleihiwa. “Why are they getting the same deal as the American colonizers?”

Astronomers point out that each of the telescopes on Mauna Kea has its own research specialty and capability, and work is often very collaborative between the organizations.

“There’s a lot of cool things happening in astronomy, way beyond what anyone was thinking about 50 years ago,” IfA’s McLaren said. “The current telescopes on Mauna Kea are making, and have made, a big contribution to all of those discoveries. And the TMT will make it even better.”

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