A revised future for astronomy at Mauna Kea

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Monday, January 22, 2007

Astronomers and native Hawaiians both worship Mauna Kea, but for very different reasons. The 13,796 foot (4,205 meter) peak of the volcano is the Mecca of ground-based astronomy. It hosts 12 observatories, including the Keck, Gemini North, and Subaru telescopes.

This aerial view shows sunrise on Mauna Kea. Part of the shadow of
Mauna Kea can be seen in the background. The observatories seen
here are (from right to left): Keck I and II (large twin white domes),
NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (silver dome in front of twin Keck
domes), Subaru (silver structure in Keck I's shadow), Canada-
France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) at center, James Clerk Maxwell
Telescope (dimly lit in shadow behind CFHT), Gemini 8-meter, and
the University of Hawaii 88-inch. Neelon Crawford (Polar Fine Arts)

But Mauna Kea is also sacred ground to native Hawaiians. It is the place where the sky-god Wakea and the Earth-mother Papa met. Wakea and Papa were the parents of Haloa, the progenitor of the Hawaiian people. Native Hawaiians and environmentalists have been keeping a close eye on plans to expand or upgrade astronomy facilities, sometimes hauling astronomers into court to oppose expansion of the science facilities on the mountain. Their voices are being heard.

A recent report by the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii indicates a scaling back of scientific ambitions for Mauna Kea, according to articles published Sunday, January 21, in the Honolulu Advertiser. The Institute oversees the operation of the telescopes on Mauna Kea. The Institute's director, Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, drafted and submitted the report to the Hawaii state legislature at its request.

The report outlines a different vision for the future of astronomy on Mauna Kea than the one previously advocated in the University of Hawaii's 2000 "master plan" for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. For one thing, the 10-meter Keck telescope will not be expanded. The idea was to add 4 to 6 smaller scopes to the main instrument, giving Keck clearer vision for extrasolar planets. Native activists and environmentalists opposed the expansion, and NASA funding for the project was cancelled.

The new Mauna Kea plan drops the Keck expansion from its list of "must haves." Also canceled is a new teaching observatory for University of Hawaii students, which was planned for the summit ridge of Mauna Kea. Also, an existing observatory will be demolished to make way for the planned Pan-STARRS survey telescope for locating Earth-threatening asteroids. Previously, the telescope was to break new ground — precisely what activists oppose.

One of two new, large observatories championed in the master plan remains in the Institute's future plans: the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). With a light-gathering surface composed of 738 individual mirrors, the TMT will be 10 times more powerful than the Keck. It should be able to image planets around other stars.

The Institute has proposed a site for the TMT that is less visible from below and minimizes the impact on cultural and environmentally sensitive sites. However, it will require breaking new ground and will attract ever more boots to walk on the sacred ground of Mauna Kea. But in the end, each side — astronomers and anti-development activists — must give some ground if ground-based astronomy is to continue to flourish in the crystal-clear skies at the summit of the Pacific's highest mountain.

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