The University of Hawaii and the California Institute of Technology are embarking on projects to take down two telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea as part of a broader initiative by the state to limit the number of telescopes on the mountain in anticipation of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s eventual construction.
The Hoku Kea UH teaching telescope and the 10-meter Caltech Submillimeter Observatory would be the first modern observatories on Mauna Kea to be decommissioned — meaning no other telescopes will take their place.
Both higher education institutions are soliciting public comments on environmental reports that detail how the telescopes will be removed and the safeguards each project will take to protect the surrounding environment.
Meanwhile, the Thirty Meter Telescope team is still seeking funding and continuing work on the project that stalled in 2019. The project faces legal challenges at an alternate site in Spain’s Canary Islands, as well as here in Hawaii.
On Wednesday, a project team from SSFM International, a UH consultant, held a public meeting to detail how the Hoku Kea telescope will be removed. The work is expected to cost about $1 million and has already been funded by the Legislature. Work could begin in 2023.
The teaching telescope will be removed, along with a nearby utility building and lunch room. Underground cables will also be taken out.
The goal for most telescope decommissioning is to return the site to its natural state. In this case, that might not be feasible, according to Jennifer Scheffel, a senior environmental planner with SSFM.
“We aren’t taking it back to the historical conditions. That was considered, but determined to not be feasible for a variety of reasons,” Scheffel said, adding that the site has already been disturbed by past construction, and that fill materials wouldn’t be suitable for habitats for the wekiu bug endemic to the Mauna Kea summit.
Planners instead expect to partially restore the site by removing any human-made materials. The site would be leveled and could be used as a public parking area for visitors to the summit. Cordoning off the area, which would happen in a full historical restoration, could mean those visitors would try to park in other areas of the summit, Scheffel said.
A significantly smaller teaching telescope is expected to be set up at the Hale Pohaku site at the base of the summit. Preliminary drawings show the dome of that telescope being no taller than nearby single-story dormitories.
William Freitas, a Hilo activist who has opposed TMT, asked why the new telescope couldn’t be located at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.
Greg Chun, UH’s director of Mauna Kea stewardship, said that UH Hilo’s astronomy program evaluated about a dozen other sites before deciding that Hale Pohaku would be the best place to accommodate students and the research they would do.
The nearby Caltech telescope is set to be taken down starting next summer. Tearing down the 300,000 pound dome, cleaning and filling a cesspool and other activities are expected to cost Caltech about $4 million, according to a draft environmental assessment.
Caltech says it may preserve the telescope to use at another astronomy site, but one has not been selected yet.
Public meetings on the draft environmental assessment are set to start Tuesday.
The decommissioning projects are being undertaken in accordance with UH plans that lay out what the observatory district at the top of Mauna Kea should look like.
UH’s objectives, as detailed in a new draft master plan, are to maintain its status as a leader in astronomy, expand scientific research on Mauna Kea beyond astronomy and find balance between that research, cultural practices and public activities.
The new draft master plan also envisions downsizing living and food facilities at Hale Pohaku in anticipation of most astronomy work being done remotely.
The plan calls for no more than nine telescopes on the summit after 2033. And not all new telescopes would be as large as the TMT.
Some would only be about 2 meters in diameter to fill the need for smaller telescopes, according to the draft master plan.
The plan also envisions another astronomy project that doesn’t involve any new telescopes. The Optical Hawaiian Array for Nanoradian Astronomy, or OHANA, would use underground cables to connect the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea to create high-resolution images.
An introduction to the plan acknowledges that it can’t resolve the historical injustices done to Hawaiians that were raised during protests over TMT in 2019. Nor can the plan answer the policy question of whether the state should support astronomy on Mauna Kea.
But the plan provides several reasons why the state should do so.
“If Hawaii is to achieve its goals of building a more diverse and sustainable future for this and future generations, the path forward is through a knowledge-based economy inclusive of disciplines grounded in science and technology guided by the values of the community,” according to the plan’s introduction.
TMT Making Inroads
In August, an appellate court in the Canary Islands revoked a public lands concession that would have allowed the TMT to be built on an alternate site on the Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma after a legal challenge by environmental group Ben Magec.
Meanwhile, the observatory is waiting on the results of the Astro2020 Decadal Survey, which sets research priorities in the field of astrophysics for the next 10 years. Part of that survey includes programs involving “Extremely Large Telescopes,” of which the TMT is a part.
The observatory is also seeking funding from the National Science Foundation. The total cost for the TMT has risen to $2 billion from a projection two years ago of a little over $1 billion.
In a written statement, the TMT International Observatory said that it’s trying to do more on the ground in Hawaii.
“TMT’s focus at the moment is a renewed effort to connect with the Hawaii community in a more meaningful manner,” the statement said. The TMT’s project manager, Fengchuan Liu, also recently moved to Hawaii and has been meeting with community members.
In 2019, the state extended the TMT’s deadline to start construction to Sept. 26 of this year. However, in April, UH Hilo wrote in a letter to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources detailing what it views as construction activities that began in 2019 that satisfy deadline requirements.
Telescope opponents are challenging the argument that work has begun, and are asking the BLNR to reopen a contested case to resolve the matter.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Supreme Court handed protesters a small victory earlier this week with an opinion that further narrowed an attorney general-led investigation into a Hawaiian nonprofit, KAHEA. KAHEA supported civil disobedience on Mauna Kea through its Aloha Aina Fund. The attorney general’s office had been seeking information that would show who donated to KAHEA, but the justices ruled that request was unreasonable.
Still, the AG’s office on Thursday praised the ruling because it allows the investigation to continue. The high court sent the case back to the First Circuit Court for further proceedings.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell