Scientists Report Missed Opportunities, Equipment Near Failure as a Result of TMT Protest

Jul 31, 2019

The twin domes of the Keck Observatory telescopes as seen from the Mauna Kea summit. Keck's Chief Scientist reported on Tuesday that they were less than two days away from a catastrophic equipment failure due to lack of regular maintenance.
Credit W. M. Keck Observatory

The telescopes on Mauna Kea are billion-dollar instruments that require daily maintenance to stay in good working order. As access restrictions continue for a third week, many are developing serious problems.

On Tuesday, Governor David Ige has canceled an emergency proclamation covering the on-going demonstration against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. The governor cited changed conditions after state regulators granted a two year extension for the TMT to begin construction.

But the summit access road will remain closed to the public and protesters have vowed to maintain their own roadblock.

This leaves Mauna Kea’s 12 observatories in a tough spot. Their billion-dollar telescopes normally require daily maintenance, especially the replenishment of liquid nitrogen coolant.

Under normal conditions, maintenance technicians ascend to the summit daily to check on instruments and perform repairs as needed. But for almost two weeks, no crews had access to the summit.

State law enforcement officers closed off public access ahead of the planned movement of heavy construction equipment up the summit access road. In response, anti-TMT protesters established their own roadblock, causing the observatories to withdraw their personnel.

Critical maintenance issues led state officials to work out an ad hoc agreement with protesters to allow limited access for repair teams. John O’Meara, Chief Scientist with the W.M. Keck Observatory, said when his technicians finally arrived on Monday, they were less than two days from a catastrophic failure.

There have also been loses of knowledge. O’Meara said that several complex observations, involving stations around the globe and in space, have had to be called off due to access issues on Mauna Kea.

“There are a number of observations that will not be possible ever again. They were single moments in time that were coordinated between observatories on the ground and in space, and those moments will never happen again. That science will simply never get done.”

He cited transient events like supernovae, exoplanets transiting their star, and even asteroid flybys like the high profile discovery of the first recorded extrasolar visitor to our solar system in 2017.

Management and staff of existing observatories are largely on the sidelines, waiting for a break in the standoff between the state and demonstrators assembled on Mauna Kea.

O’Meara worries that if the situation drags on, a serious equipment failure will be hard to avoid.

“We’re very concerned that we’re one power failure away from something serious.”