Board votes to leave UH-Hilo observatory in place — for now

  • The Hoku Ke‘a teaching telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. (Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii.)

The University of Hawaii’s Maunakea Management Board on Friday voted against decommissioning the former site of an educational telescope on Maunakea until there is a firm plan to reinstall the telescope elsewhere in Hawaii.

Hoku Ke‘a, a small observatory that housed UH-Hilo’s 36-inch telescope, was one of three observatories scheduled for decommissioning in 2015 as part of Gov. David Ige’s Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan.

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The removal of Hoku Ke‘a, along with the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, was intended to reduce the footprint of astronomy on Maunakea; 25% of the 13 telescopes on the mountain were ordered to be decommissioned in exchange for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The telescope itself — which was installed in 2010 as the centerpiece of the UH-Hilo Educational Observatory, intended to be used to train UH astronomy students — was removed from Maunakea summit in 2018. The surrounding building and concrete platform require the filing of a Notice of Intent to Decommission before they can be removed.

That Notice of Intent was one of several items on the agenda Friday.

However, removing the small telescope has become a sticking point for astronomy advocates who do not want to see an important teaching tool stripped from students.

UH alumna Callie Crowder, now an observer with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, called Hoku Ke‘a “the most beautiful telescope I had ever seen” and said several former classmates left the field because they were not able to get hands-on telescope experience during their undergraduate education.

Although the Hoku Ke‘a telescope never functioned as intended — it was delivered to UH with a faulty primary mirror — the university purchased new equipment for the Educational Observatory in 2016. Because that purchase came after the decision to decommission Hoku Ke‘a, the equipment was assembled and stored at UH-Hilo.

Crowder trained with that equipment as a NASA Space Grant trainee.

“For three years, the telescope has been locked in a windowless room,” Crowder said. “I think it’s a shame that it’s wasted like that.”

Even opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope spoke in favor of the educational telescope Friday. One testifier, Davin Vicente, said the telescope was slated for removal only because it is the smallest and easiest to remove, irrespective of its value for the community.

“I don’t believe we should have put telescopes up there in the first place, but I don’t have a time machine.” Vicente said, adding that, if the university is as interested in STEM education as it claims to be, it should not sacrifice its best teaching tool in favor of a research telescope like TMT.

Several board members agreed with the several testifiers who opposed the removal of Hoku Ke‘a at Friday’s meeting.

Doug Simons, board member and executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, bluntly told the rest of the board that he would abstain from voting on the Notice of Intent, which would prevent the motion from passing.

Simons said he was “dumbfounded” that the decommissioning process for Hoku Ke‘a has been deferred and delayed for so long even though the public has continually supported reopening the telescope elsewhere on the island. While he said he does not believe the telescope should remain on the summit, the university has long discussed a promising alternative site at Halepohaku below the summit of Maunakea, but the Department of Land and Natural Resources has dug its heels on approving the site.

“DLNR could get this done fast, but they’ve been giving us reasons for delays that I don’t accept anymore,” Simons said.

Simons said he believes that the DLNR is concerned about the optics of approving any new telescope anywhere on Maunakea during the current political climate, but added that such concerns do not track with reality, where many TMT opponents also seem to support — or at least not oppose — Hoku Ke‘a.

Until the university has a concrete plan for reinstating Hoku Ke‘a elsewhere, Simons said he could not in good conscience approve the Notice of Intent. Passing the Notice without such a plan would remove any pressure to restore the educational telescope, he said.

Ultimately, board member Greg Chun was the only one to support the Notice of Intent, while fellow board member Julie Leialoha and board chair Roberta Chu voted against the motion. The failed Notice will now return to the Board of Regents, along with a strong recommendation from the Maunakea Management Board to develop a coherent plan to relocate Hoku Ke‘a.

While the board delayed the decommissioning of Hoku Ke‘a on Friday, it approved early steps to decommission the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, approving unanimously a first-phase environmental site assessment and a hazardous materials report relating to the decommissioning process.

The board also listened to a presentation by geochemist Don Thomas, director for the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii Manoa Institute of Geophysics and Planetology. Thomas addressed concerns that the decommissioning processes at the summit could impact the island’s groundwater.

Thomas said that current hydrological models of the island indicate that water infiltrating into the ground from the summit of the mountain would take centuries, even millennia, to reach sea level, and any contaminants to enter the water at the summit would almost certainly disintegrate before reaching drinking water sources.

Furthermore, Thomas said, there are less than half a dozen septic systems or cesspools at Maunakea summit, while there are thousands of septic tanks and cesspools in Hilo alone, far closer to active wells, without significant public outcry.

Finally, the board also heard and had no comments on “nonsubstantial” changes to the Maunakea administrative rules made since June, including clarifications to the rules’ definition of “camping,” including e-cigarettes to the rules concerning smoking, and removing certain vague and broad language.

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New administrative rules will be discussed at a meeting of the UH Board of Regents on Nov. 6. The full proposed rules will be unveiled to the public no later than six days before the meeting.

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

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