Astronomers lament lost observation time, risk to Maunakea telescopes

  • In this 2015 file photo, observatories and telescopes sit atop Maunakea. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

For nearly two weeks, no staff of the Maunakea Observatories have been able to access the telescopes at the mountain’s summit, save at the discretion of demonstrators occupying Maunakea Access Road.

The lack of access has put the observatories under significant strain.

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“Basically, we’ve done zero observations since (July 16),” John O’Meara, chief scientist at W. M. Keck Observatory, said on Friday.

On July 16, the second day of the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope project, the heads of the 12 observatories at the summit jointly chose to remove all staff at the summit out of concern for their safety. Since then, only a handful of technicians has been allowed up the road.

The telescopes on the summit will not be operated so long as access is blocked by protesters, for fear of a critical system failing without anybody on-site to fix it. While many of the telescopes can be remotely operated, they require personnel to access the site quickly to prevent potential damage to the instruments.

One such failure occurred last week at Gemini Observatory. Associate Director Andrew Adamson said several extremely sensitive detectors relied on a liquid helium cooling circuit to keep them at optimal temperatures.

That helium circuit had sprung a leak, Adamson said, which risked exposing the detectors to uncontrolled warming. Adamson explained that, should the cooling gases leak into the detectors themselves, they can thaw and then freeze again onto the detector, damaging it.

Late Tuesday, Gemini technicians were allowed up the mountain and successfully deactivated the cooling circuit entirely, Adamson said, allowing the detectors to be warmed in a controlled manner.

“They’re kept in vacuum; they’ll be safe enough,” Adamson said. “It’s not something we’d usually want to do, but that was all we could do.”

Adamson said he thinks Gemini is safe from other systems failures for the time being, but added that things can spontaneously go wrong.

While the failure of such cooling systems would likely not damage the telescopes themselves, Rich Matsuda, chief of operations at Keck Observatory, said the detectors that rely on the cooling systems are, in some cases, one-of-a-kind instruments that could not be replaced without millions of dollars and years of lead time.

Less quantifiable is the cost of the missed observation time. O’Meara said Keck had dozens of different projects scheduled for the past two weeks that will have to reapply for observation time, a process that likely will take months or years.

O’Meara said one project will not be able to reapply, however. That project, which would track the movement of a distant exoplanet, had only one window when observation would be possible within our lifetimes, which has now passed.

Adamson said most of Gemini’s missed observation projects have not depended on such brief timeframes, but added that there is no way to know about other missed opportunities.

“There could have been another ‘Oumuamua, and we would have no way of knowing,” he said, referring to the first, and so far only, interstellar object ever observed moving through our solar system, discovered in 2017 by the Pan-STARRS telescope on Haleakala.

“It’s impossible to assign a monetary value to (the missed observation time),” O’Meara said.

“Every day, something could happen that changes the science forever.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of observatory workers are unable to work, O’Meara said, explaining that Keck astronomers have transitioned to doing preparatory and documentation work in the meantime.

“People are working, but they’re not doing their normal jobs,” O’Meara said.

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“Our techs and engineers take tremendous pride in their work,” Matsuda said. “It’s very frustrating to them that they can’t get back up there.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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