Just three weeks into the job, the University of Hawaii’s newest astronomy director, Doug Simons, is juggling a multitude of issues.

Two telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea are set to be demolished. The university is undertaking a renewed effort to balance competing interests on the summit of the mountain considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians. And plans are in motion that would allow the university to maintain a master lease that clears the way for observatories on the mountain past 2033.

This is all in the aftermath of protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope two years ago that stalled the project, which is now expected to cost about $2 billion. Meanwhile Simons, who took over as director of the Institute for Astronomy Sept. 1, is leading an institute that has played an integral role in numerous cosmic discoveries in recent years, such as producing the first images of a black hole and discovering the first interstellar object to pass through the solar system.

Snow along road on the summit of Mauna Kea. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CiviL Beat
A new director for the Institute of Astronomy is taking over at a critical time for observatories on Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

In an interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board Wednesday, Simons and Greg Chun, director for Mauna Kea stewardship, talked about new initiatives on the mountain as well as UH’s efforts to do a better job at connecting with the Hawaiian community.

Though the TMT has drawn much attention in recent years, it’s not the only important issue on Mauna Kea.

“Long term, the real issue is supporting Mauna Kea astronomy, of which the TMT is a part but not the only path forward,” Simons said.

He added that while the TMT is important to astronomy on Mauna Kea, and while protests over its construction have not helped advance that goal, the bigger issue is ensuring that most of the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea can operate past 2033.

UH has a 65-year master lease with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources that is set to expire that year. If that were to happen, all telescopes would need to be removed by then. That’s a scenario Simons hopes to avoid. He said the next few years will be critical to determine the future of Mauna Kea.

Doug Simons, director of the Institute for Astronomy Raiatea Arcuri

To lose the astronomy district on Mauna Kea would create a “hole in the Northern hemisphere’s sky,” Simons said.

He said all the observatories are legally committed to decommissioning their telescopes by 2033 if the master lease is not renewed. That means decisions need to be made by around 2025 because, if the lease is not renewed, it would take time to remove the facilities and restore the site.

Before that happens, stakeholders including the BLNR need to weigh in on the new master lease.

“For me, the immediacy, the urgency, of resolving this is front and center,” Simons said.

UH is already trying to reduce the number of telescopes on Mauna Kea. A new master plan envisions having only nine telescopes by 2033.

Regarding the conflict over the TMT, Simons urged all sides to find mutual interests rather than trying to drive their own agendas.

“If either side wins, everybody loses, to some extent,” Simons said. He said he sees it as an opportunity for Hawaii to work through an incredibly complex issue “in a way that melds indigenous ways of knowing and understanding with contemporary science.”

The university has already taken steps to do that. Simons highlighted a program in which Native Hawaiian scholars give names to newly discovered celestial objects.

Simons and UH Hawaiian language professor Larry Kimura have collaborated on a series of presentations called the “Physics of Po” to share their views on the Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo.

“By the time we’re done in an hour, people are wondering ‘What are we fighting about?'” Simons said. “Because the beauty and synergy as captured in the Kumulipo’s prelude is just breathtaking. And that’s an answer to a conflict that isn’t left or right. It’s different altogether.”

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