A Night Between Hurricanes at Kaʻohe

Our monthly dark skies star party had been originally planned for the night of July 27th, a few days before full Moon. With the governor’s emergency order all access to the mauna was closed, and the gals at the DLNR office let me know I could not get a permit. With that I put out a message I hate to post… Star party cancelled.

The NexStar 11 setup under the Milky Way at Kaʻohe
The NexStar 11 setup under the Milky Way at Kaʻohe, photo processed with Prisma

One week later and things look better, the emergency order has been rescinded and we again have access to the mauna, no problem getting our permit.

The problem this time looked to be weather, no big problem… Just a couple of hurricanes.

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Was the real summit of Mauna Kea destroyed to make way for a telescope?

The idea that one of the existing telescopes sits on what was the real summit of Mauna Kea is persistent.

Mauna Kea Summit Alexander 1892
Mauna Kea summit as surveyed by W. D. Alexander in 1892

and NO there is NO RECTIFYING of the DAMAGES TO MAUNA KEA!!! Damnit man they sheered OFF the summit to INSERT the Kecks into The Pu’u that was the SUMMIT. What an ignorant thing to say!!!

Susan Rosier in a Facebook comment, 4 Aug 2019

While not a common claim this idea keeps popping up. It was even repeated by Kealoha Pisciotta under oath during the contested case. In her case she claimed it was the nearby summit ridge that was shaved off, and they “just moved the summit”.

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The observatories pay no rent?

There are two thing that opponents neglect to mention in this accusation. The observatories do pay the state money, quite a bit actually, about $4.4 million per year. Opponents also fail to understand why that $1 rent came about and the history of astronomy on the mauna.

The Keck telescopes at sunrise
The Keck telescopes at sunrise

In often nasty accusations, the $1 rent is used to imply that the observatories get a free ride, costing the state and county, and therefore the taxpayers. This is the part that is completely false, the observatories not only pay their share of costs, but have significantly benefited the island economy in very direct ways.

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You cannot build TMT on conservation land?

The claim is often made that TMT cannot be built as the land its would be sited on is a designated resource conservation district. This is another claim is steadily repeated by telescope opponents on social media…

A group of puʻu on the NE flank of Mauna Kea
A group of puʻu on the NE flank of Mauna Kea

 ITS CONSERVATION LAND! What part of that is so hard to understand? no more damage to our mountain.. please!! auwē!

Lynne Ven in a Facebook post

The crux of the claim is that being conservation district means that the telescope cannot be built near the summit of Mauna Kea as it is conservation land, that somehow the land is completely protected.

This claim argument depends on ignorance of the laws surrounding conservation lands. To anyone not familiar with the state land system this might make sense, but it is just is not true.

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The motivation for TMT is greed and profit?

It is said over, and over, and over… The telescopes exist to exploit the mauna, to extract profit, that they are built for greed. This is the single most repeated myth about the observatories, and it is the most insulting.

Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai
Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai

The fact is that the observatories make no profit, they are either government owned or operated by non-profit corporations. Actually the reverse is true, they are very good at spending money, and they spend a lot, observatories are expensive to operate with about $100 million put into the island economy.

What opponents seem oblivious to is in insisting that the telescopes are for profit it that they a being totally insulting. The insinuation of greed is as insulting as the worst things said against them. They repeat the insult over and over and do not care.

People work in astronomy to learn and explore the universe, they consider the pursuit of knowledge to be a noble goal. I have never met someone who worked in astronomy to get rich, the very idea is laughable. Like much of academia astronomy generally does not pay very well compared to some alternatives. Personally I could be making far more money working for some mainland electronics firm, and have a much smaller mortgage.

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Telescope Technicians Denied Access

Gemini Moonrise
The full Moon rising behind the Gemini North telescope

There is a developing maintenance situation at Gemini, a cooling system is failing putting very valuable equipment at risk. To deal with Gemini sought and received permission from both the state and the protesters to send a crew up that mauna to perform emergency maintenance.

Long story short, the protesters failed to honor their agreement today…

At approximately 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, July 23, a car containing technicians from Gemini Observatory was stopped by activists from entering the Maunakea Access Road. The observatory had been assured access the previous day in conversation with law enforcement, and the Office of Maunakea Management. Despite prior public statements indicating observatory technicians would not be denied access to the telescopes, activists today contradicted their earlier position. Activists told observatory personnel that without a formal, public letter from the observatories – supporting activists’ demands of the state – access for critical technical maintenance is no longer supported. 

Upon initial approach, the car of technicians was initially waived through the bamboo gate; the driver stopped to speak with an official from the Office of Maunakea Management, at which point a kupuna approached the car, stating that access was not to be allowed. Five additional activists then moved to stand in front of the car. This denial of access was contrary to the understanding of access approval by the Gemini crew members and the individual who had initially opened the gate. 

The car of technicians respectfully pulled to the side of the road at the request of the activists and waited for approximately 45 minutes.  During that time, activist leaders indicated that they were working to determine whether the technicians should be allowed access. 

Eventually, the Gemini crew members elected to turn back, given the uncertainty of eventual access. The crew was flagged down on their way away from the access point with an appeal from activists to continue to wait. The crew stopped to speak with the activists briefly before continuing to the Gemini base facility in Hilo.

The Maunakea Observatories continue to support the efforts of state and county law enforcement to restore safe and reliable access to the access road. 

About the planned technical work at Gemini Observatory today: 
Gemini Observatory uses gaseous helium in a cooling circuit to maintain stable low temperatures for two highly-delicate instruments used in astronomical observations. The cooling system has become unstable, which requires specialized technicians to shut down in order to prevent damage to the instruments and the cooling circuit itself. 

The observatory personnel planned to shut off the compressors, move one instrument at risk to a separate cooling circuit, shut down the second, disconnect specific joints in the cooling system, and perform a standard facility inspection that is usually conducted on a daily basis during normal operations. The planned technical work would have taken approximately three hours; the crew would have then come directly back to their Hilo base facility. 

Official statement from the Maunakea Observatories

On social media the protesters are trying to deny the event, claiming that the state is truly responsible. This is contradicted by the statements of the protest’s official spokesman who put his account of the incident into his daily video report.

In the report Kahoʻokahi Kanuha makes it clear that he was attempting to negotiate with the maintenance crew, asking for a statement supporting the protesters. The crew has no authority to negotiate, no authority to make statements or agreements for others. When this occurred they left as it was clear the protesters had failed to honor their agreements.

Will TMT use nuclear power?

I truly cannot believe I am writing this. But the question is getting asked over and over on social media. The claim that TMT will use some for of nuclear power is apparently believed in some parts of the protest community.

TMT Cross Section
A cross section rendering of the TMT observatory

What will power TMT? HELCO

TMT will draw power from the local power grid like every other telescope. There is an underground power line run up the side of the mauna from the cross island transmission line in the Saddle.

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There are other places where TMT could be built?

While it is true that TMT could be located at another site, no site would be quite as good as Mauna Kea.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
An artist concept of TMT at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.

Astronomers measure the quality of a site in several ways, one of the most important is simply called ‘seeing’. This is a measure of atmospheric distortion, the amount of turbulence in the atmosphere above the telescope that distorts or blurs the image. In short it is a measure of how much stars twinkle at the site.

Seeing is measured in terms of the smallest discernible detail in arcseconds. A good site will have seing of less than one arcsecond. The best Chilean sites have seeing that averages around 0.7 arcseconds at best. Mauna Kea can have seeing that averages around 0.4 arcseconds when it is good, roughly twice as good as Chile.

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Space telescopes are better?

Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope attack the telescope in any way possible. Any argument is fodder in social media and newspaper editorials. Many of these arguments depend on a superficial level of knowledge about astronomy, this claim is a good example of this.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
The TMT with a laser guide star adaptive optics system
James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope

The claim is that a ground based telescope like TMT is not needed as a space telescope is more capable. Why spend the money? Why build TMT on Mauna Kea?

Given the stunning accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope this sounds plausible. This argument also ignores a number of fundamental realities in telescope design and use. Both have their limitations and we will discuss some of the more important ones here.

Certainly a telescope in space has a number of advantages over a ground based telescope. Not having an atmosphere to look through helps, it helps a lot. This is countered by the way ground based telescopes have developed solutions to overcome those limitations. The limitations on a space telescope are not created by the atmosphere and as such are far more practical and daunting.

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An Open Letter from the Observatories of Mauna Kea

The observatories that call Mauna Kea home have written an open letter to the community expressing our position on the ongoing events in our local community…

Aloha to our scientific colleagues around the world,


On behalf of the more than 500 people employed by the Maunakea Observatories, we offer a perspective about the Maunakea situation with the sincere hope that our words encourage greater understanding of the complex circumstances in which we find ourselves.


Staff members of the Maunakea Observatories, many of whom are born and raised in Hawaiʻi, feel a deep and personal connection to the special people and place of our Hawai‘i Island home. We live and work together in a community where our success is measured by the quality of our relationships, one of the paramount reasons life here is enriching, rewarding and inspiring. Even in conflict, our differences don’t define us; our humble, reverent appreciation of our community does. The diverse mix of scientists, technicians, engineers, administrators, and students of the Maunakea Observatories continually seek a path forward that strengthens the future of our island community. Our local staff, family members, and friends have a wide range of views and strong feelings about the events that surround us. We deeply respect all these viewpoints, which come from our family and friends, and we both believe and champion their right to express them.


In our community, we are weathering the pain of rifts in these carefully tended relationships that will take mutual respect and time to heal. We know these challenges across our island home have gained attention with our peers in the international astronomy community. We understand your expressed concerns. We also urge your appreciation of the nuances and complexity of the issues we now face.


The future of Maunakea astronomy will be defined primarily by the diverse people of Hawaiʻi. The vast majority of island residents support the Maunakea Observatories, who have been part of this community for more than 50 years. Conflict about the Thirty Meter Telescope does not change the long-standing support our Observatories have earned, but it will undoubtedly influence its future. For the benefit of the people who work on the mountain, for those who practice their culture and religion on the mountain, we look to a future beyond coexistence because that still implies barriers. We look to a future in which knowledge and worldviews hybridize to create a reality more beautiful and resilient than its progenitors.


This is beginning already, through A Hua He Inoa, the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, black hole Pōwehi, and the unusual asteroids recently officially named Kamo‘oalewa and Ka‘epaoka‘awela by Hawaiian students. We look to a future for Maunakea where studies of the universe are buoyed by the wisdom of Hawaiian kupuna and grounded in the richness of Hawaiian culture. We are nurturing this future now as devoted members of the Hawaiʻi Island and international astronomy communities. We ask for the informed understanding and support of our international astronomy community to uphold this vision, which we believe will be an important part of everyone’s future.


Mahalo,

Director Doug Simons, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
Director Pierre Martin, Hoku Kea Observatory
Director Jennifer Lotz, Gemini Observatory
Director Paul Ho, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (East Asian Observatory)
Interim Director Robert McLaren, Institute for Astronomy
Director John Rayner, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility
Director Michitoshi Yoshida, Subaru Telescope
Director Klaus Hodapp, UKIRT
Director Hilton Lewis, W.M. Keck Observatory (Keck I and Keck II)