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Scientists Anxiously Await Opening of Inouye Solar Telescope on Haleakalā

NSF’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope sits near the summit of Haleakalā in Maui, Hawaiʻi. It is expected to begin operations in 2021.
NSF’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope sits near the summit of Haleakalā on Maui, Hawaiʻi.

Project Director Thomas Rimmele is counting down the days as he hopes a new telescope can open its window to the sun in three months' time.

The opening of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on Haleakalā was supposed to happen last fall.

COVID-19 travel restrictions set back construction on the telescope's critical systems. That also meant the scientists vying for time on the telescope have had to take a backseat to the pandemic.

Everyone is hoping the schedule won’t be impacted by this latest surge — and any additional restrictions. Rimmele was expecting to head back to Maui from Colorado as early as this week.

"November 15 is what we're shooting for. We just had a big review, the final construction review that was conducted by the National Science Foundation," Rimmele said. "(The scientists) are getting really anxious to get their observations and data done."

The telescope has received about 100 proposals from researchers for an initial observing window of two-and-a-half months. Picking which scientists get to go first depends heavily on atmospheric conditions and what objects are visible on a given day.

He said one quarter or even a fifth of the proposals may be implemented in this first cycle.

"We are highly oversubscribed and people will have to submit proposals again for the next cycle," he said. "That's just how it works."

The telescope is to be the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world. The National Solar Observatory said the Inouye telescope will be able to reveal features three times smaller than anything scientists are able to currently see on the sun.

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court in 2016 affirmed a permit for the solar telescope’s construction.

The next year, more than 100 protesters tried to block a construction convoy heading to the telescope site, citing the sacredness of Haleakalā’s summit. Maui police arrested six people.

Protests against another telescope planned for a different mountain and island — the Thirty Meter Telescope at the summit of Maunakea on the Big Island — have prevented construction crews from working on that project.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Aug. 18, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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