Decommissioning Mauna Kea Telescopes Not As Easy As Switching Off The Lights

Aug 15, 2019

Three of the thirteen telescopes on Mauna Kea are set to be decommissioned before the planned Thirty Meter Telescope is built. This could involve relocating one of the telescopes elsewhere on the mountain, and that has its own issues.

At a meeting in Hilo earlier this week, Office of Mauna Kea Management director Stephanie Nagata explained on Big Island Video News there’s a lot of leeway in decommissioning telescopes.

"Deconstruction can be full or partial and the restoration of site...can be minimal where basically after you remove the infrastructure...you just grade the surface," Nagata said. "And full restoration is restoring the site to as close to its original condition as possible -- that would be the ideal situation."

The first telescope on the decommissioning list is the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. It is currently undergoing an environmental assessment. The second, is the University of Hawaiʻi’s Hoku Kea telescope.

"There was quite a lot of public comments…about not decommissioning this educational telescope and so the University of Hawai’i at Hilo was asked to go out to the community and consult on this," Nagata said.

She said the UH Hilo’s astronomy department scouted possible relocation sites for Hoku Kea.

"The only place they can do it is really on Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa is not a site they can use for various reasons. An area on Hualalai is not usable. Itʻs too low and itʻs too much moisture so it could damage the telescope. They know that the summit is probably off limits so we’re looking at Hale Pohaku as a location."

Hale Pohaku is situated along Mauna Kea Access Road roughly eight miles below the summit. Hoku Kea’s relocation worries Debbie Ward, head of the Sierra Club Big Island chapter.

"My concern about that is when they rebuilt the parking lot, they took out 200 mamane trees in critical habitat for the palila and the mamane are actually the dietary source that’s require for the palila," Ward said. "So you know here we are, we’re talking about putting another facility."

The third telescope on the list is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, which has not formally begun decommissioning. Under the current master lease, which expires in 2033, all Mauna Kea telescopes will need to be removed and the sites restored if no new lease is granted.