1st telescope removed from controversial astronomy hub on Hawaiian Volcano

For the first time ever, a telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea volcano has been fully decommissioned – it was disassembled, removed, and restored to its previous conditions. The effort comes under an agreement between the University of Hawaii and the Maunakea Supervisory and Oversight Authoritydesigned to resolve tensions over the construction of a new telescope on the mountain: The Thirty Meter Telescope.

Since the 1960s, 13 telescopes have been built on Maunakea, a place sacred to the native people of the Hawaiian Islands because it is where the earth meets the sky. Therefore, each new Maunakea observatory has been replaced by protesters who believe that building a new telescope on this volcanic mountain is sacrificial. The astronomical community, however, There is a struggle find a balance between their scientific research plans and the needs of native Hawaiian culture. That’s because Maunakea offers unique pristine skywatching conditions. Things came to a head with protests against the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which, if built, would be the second largest telescope in the world – and the largest on Maunakea.

Related: Why are astronomers worried about 2 large telescopes right now?

However, question marks still hang over the future of the TMT. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has said that it can only provide funding for one of the TMT or the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is planned for construction in Chile. A panel was convened to determine which project the NSF should help fund. The long-lost observatory may still be able to move forward if it gets enough private funding, but the fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea is far from certain.

However, experts are preparing for the event that the TMT does indeed.

Until recently, the telescopes on Maunakea were managed by the University of Hawaii, but in an effort to work more closely with native Hawaiians, management of the observatory was handed over to the newly formed Maunakea Authority. The Authority has representatives from the local government, the university, as well as the observatories themselves. It is also planned to include people with experience and understanding of Hawaiian culture to guide the most appropriate use of the mountain.

As part of the move – and as part of an agreement to obtain permission for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope – the University of Hawaii agreed to decommission three observatories on the mountain. Now, the first of these – the University of Hawaii’s Hōkū Keʻa 36-inch telescope, which was used for teaching – has been removed.

Various images showing the progress of the telescope.

Various images showing the progress of the telescope.

The telescope could not be torn unhappily; instead, its closure had to follow a four-point “Decommissioning Plan” as part of the University of Hawaii’s Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan. The four points begin with a notice of the intention to close a telescope; this is followed by environmental due diligence and site assessments. Then, the telescope, its observatory dome, associated buildings and infrastructure can be carefully dismantled and removed. Finally, the site must be restored to its original state, and it is also intended to monitor the area for three years to see what impact the restoration has had on the stimulation of local wildlife.

“Maunakea requires the highest levels of stewardship, and we remain steadfast in our collaborative efforts to respect and protect the cultural and environmental significance of this âina. [the Hawaiian word for ‘land’],” University of Hawaii Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin said in a statement. “The elimination of Hōkū Keʻa reflects the university’s ongoing commitment to reducing the telescope presence on Maunakea.”

Decommissioning of Hōkū Keʻa began in April and cost $1 million. Disposing of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), which is much larger with a radio dish that is 10.4 meters (34 feet) in diameter, is expensive. After first seeing the light in 1986, the Central Statistics Office was effectively closed in 2015 after being replaced by new instruments such as the CSO. Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

To the left, a telescope dome is visible.  Right, it's gone.To the left, a telescope dome is visible.  Right, it's gone.

To the left, a telescope dome is visible. Right, it’s gone.

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The dish associated with this sub-millimeter telescope, named the Leighton Telescope after the astronomer Robert Leighton who first proposed it to the Central Statistics Office back in 1973, will be dismantled just before December 2023. The removal of the dome and the rest of the observatory’s infrastructure is already underway, to the tune of $4 million.

The third telescope to be removed will be UKIRT, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, a 3.8-metre (150-inch) telescope originally owned and managed by the United Kingdom, but which, in 2014, was given to the University of Hawaii . Since then, it has continued to operate in automatic, unassisted mode. According to the agreement with the Maunakea Authority, two more telescopes must be removed from the mountain by 2033 if the TMT manages to find a way forward.

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