Why Dismantling of Mauna Kea Telescopes Raises Questions

Oct 7, 2019

The state’s commitment to remove five existing telescopes on Mauna Kea to build the Thirty-Meter Telescope remains part of the effort to resolve the protest on the mountain. But most of these telescopes are still operating and even TMT opponents see the value of keeping them online until their lease expires.

A handful of telescopes are set to be decommissioned by the time TMT begins operations. One is the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, which is already on its way out. Astronomer Doug Simons says removal of the telescopes makes sense if they aren’t fully operational but what if they continue to work?

"t does kind of beg the question," said Doug Simons is the director of the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope, one of 13 on the summit. "You know, if they're doing great work why pull the plug on a facility that is state-of-the-art and doing world-class research? You know, obviously I'm biased but I think that's a fair question to ask."

Simons said with the exception of Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, which lost its operating funds, and the University of Hawaiʻi’s educational telescope that never became operational (Hōkū Keʻa), all other Mauna Kea telescopes are producing science.

"So it does set in place certain tensions as you can imagine. As facilities and their staffs in particular are aware that you know, they could potentially be on the decom list," he said.

Thirty Meter Telescope opponent Kealoha Pisciotta says decommissioning is not the answer.

"This idea of swapping, you know, telescopes that are the size of a large kitchen into something that that's bigger than a football field, right? Eighteen stories high is unreasonable," she said.

Speeding up the removal of existing telescopes makes little sense when many have more years of good science left, Pisciotta said

"We have never advocated for the removal of telescopes because the removal of telescopes creates a whole other level of problems. However, we knew at some point at the end of their lease, we wanted everything off," she said.

The current master lease held by the university that allows the telescopes to operate on Mauna Kea expires in 2033. All telescopes on the mountain will need to be removed by then if no new lease is negotiated. 

"So you back that up that actually means we need to start planning that process, you know, well in advance," said Simons. "It could be a fairly large disruption on the mountain if you were to try and simultaneously remove a billion dollars worth of equipment up there."

But Simons, like many in Hawaiʻi's astronomy communiy, hopes astronomy has a future on Mauna Kea beyond 2033. UH is trying to extend that master lease – a move TMT opponents like Pisciotta adamantly oppose. The university is preparing to release a draft environmental study for an extended lease early next year.

The protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea enters its 13th week today.