UH-Hilo to buy new teaching telescope; Hoku Kea replacement won’t go on Mauna Kea
Published October 10, 2015 - 1:30am
The Hoku Kea telescope dome atop Mauna Kea is seen in a webcam image taken June 19.
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By TOM CALLIS Hawaii Tribune-Herald
While it’s not clear where it will be placed, University of Hawaii at Hilo still plans to buy a new teaching telescope after being told to remove its tiny observatory from Mauna Kea.
Decommissioning the broken Hoku Kea telescope was announced in July after Gov. David Ige, in response to protests that have blocked construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, asked for the removal of at least three of the 13 telescopes on the mountain by the time TMT is built.
After several years of failed attempts by UH-Hilo to repair its 0.9-meter telescope, which was delivered inoperable, the news was almost devastating for astronomy faculty who were just about to buy a replacement and still hoped to salvage the project.
But, after talks between faculty and university leaders, the $450,000 state lawmakers already allocated to purchase a replacement will remain dedicated, assuming it’s built anywhere other than Mauna Kea, faculty members said.
That was good news for Pierre Martin, an assistant astronomy professor and Hoku Kea director.
“For us, it’s a very important thing,” said Martin about having a telescope dedicated to students.
“Our mission, our vision has not changed at all. This is what we want to do. But we need the tools to do that.”
He said the new 0.7-meter telescope, which is being built by a separate company, likely will be delivered next summer.
The university also plans to make it available to local high school students.
Martin said the telescope and its 18-foot-wide dome temporarily will be installed at UH-Hilo if a permanent site isn’t immediately available.
With Hilo’s cloudy and wet weather, that’s not an ideal location for a telescope, but students still could learn technical skills, such as how to install instruments and other equipment, he said.
Martin said a permanent location would need clear skies and be easy to access. He doesn’t have a list of potential sites; he just knows where he can’t put it.
“It’s sad because this (Mauna Kea) is the best place but we cannot do it,” Martin said.
Mauna Kea is prized by astronomers for its clear skies and Native Hawaiians who consider it one of their most sacred sites. Hawaiian activists, who see construction at the summit as desecration, have blocked grubbing and grading work at the TMT site several times this year, and construction remains delayed.
Removal of the existing Hoku Kea telescope and dome is expected to begin by 2016, officials said.
The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory site will be returned to its natural state by 2018. No other decommissioning plans have been announced.
Martin said the telescope’s new dome will be lighter and more portable.
Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.