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Are Mauna Kea Observatories Getting a Free Ride?
An analysis by the author indicates existing telescopes are allocating observatory time worth $13 million annually to the University of Hawaii. The Thirty Meter Telescope would raise that to more than $17 million a year.

About the Author

  • Gerald Smith
    Smith holds a master of science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California. He managed the Keck Project for Caltech, the Infrared Telescope Facility for the University of Hawaii and the Infrared Space Telescope for NASA. Now retired, he lives on the Big Island.

In Gov. David Ige’s plan, presented on May 26th for improving management of Mauna Kea, he requested that the University of Hawaii, “revisit the issue of payments by the existing telescope now as well as requiring it in the new lease.”

It seems obvious that the intent was to increase observatory financial contributions to the state. He must think these facilities are not paying their fair share for the privilege of locating on Mauna Kea.

The Thirty Meter Telescope protesters have been claiming the telescopes were getting a free ride because the subleases only require paying a dollar a year.  It is true, the subleases only specify $1 per year, but the value of observing time specified in the rest of the agreements has been ignored.

Mauna Kea Telescopes

The Mauna Kea road approaches the summit, where a coterie of telescopes lease space, typically for $1 a year each. Gov. Ige has called for the observatories to make bigger financial contributions to Hawaii.

Anthony Crider/Flickr

My understanding of these agreements is that the objective was to balance the value of the site provided to the telescope with the value of observing time provided to the University of Hawaii.

In order to quantify  that information for myself and anyone else interested,  I have estimated the cost of the observing time allocated to UH for each telescope. My estimates are based on public information and my experience in managing many scientific projects including large telescopes.

Ten of the 13 current telescopes are included in my estimate. The other three telescopes are owned by UH or not used by UH.

My results show  the total cost of time allocated to UH by the 10 institutions  is approximately $13 million per year.

In addition, TMT will allocate observing time valued at $4.35 million per year once it is completed. TMT will also pay an additional $2 million per year for educational and management support.

This is not exactly a dollar a year.