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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 9, 2003

The Haleakala Observatories, also known as Science City, will see a new observatory open within six months, and two more are proposed.

Advertiser library photo

Haleakala's astronomy role growing

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

While opposition to expansion of the telescopes on Mauna Kea continues to make headlines, astronomy development at Hawai'i's other mountaintop observatory site, Haleakala, quietly moves forward.

A new 2-meter telescope — the world's largest telescope devoted to education and outreach purposes — is scheduled to be operational within six months.

Two other major projects — the world's largest solar telescope, and the most powerful telescope for seeking out "killer" asteroids — could be in the offing for the 10,000-foot Maui summit in the next five or so years.

A long-awaited master plan is being devised for the 18-acre site of the Haleakala Observatories, commonly known as Science City. The plan is expected to lay the groundwork for development of the area, which is managed by the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy, the same entity involved in the development and management of the observatories on Mauna Kea.

A NASA-financed plan for a $50 million project to install six "outrigger" telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea is the subject of an ongoing state Board of Land and Natural Resources contested case hearing. The mountain is sacred to Native Hawaiians and home to the endangered wekiu bug and other unique species.

On Maui, Native Hawaiians, environmentalists and others said they plan to keep a close eye on how astronomy activities on Haleakala develop.

Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. has been one of the loudest critics of the Science City telescopes.

"It's one of our most sacred sites. Only the ali'i and the kahuna could go there. But along comes Western man who shows no respect to the cinders and lava Pele created. There is no protocol, no cultural accountability,'' he said.

It was Maxwell who in 1999 interrupted a signing ceremony with Prince Andrew of Britain for the $10 million Faulkes Telescope destined for Maui. Maxwell asked officials attending the ceremony if Native Hawaiians would be included during the planning of the project to protect the spirituality of the crater.

Construction is nearing completion for the Faulkes, billed as the largest outreach and education telescope, which will be controlled remotely by classrooms in Hawai'i and England.

Mary Evanson, founder of the Friends of Haleakala National Park, remains appalled by the visual intrusion of the Air Force's Advanced Electro-Optical Systems telescope, constructed in 1997. At sunset, the silver-domed observatory lights up like a star, visible from all of Central Maui. "We don't want that to happen again," she said.

Meanwhile, the University of Hawai'i has announced that Haleakala is one of six finalists being considered to house the world's largest solar telescope.

If Haleakala is selected, the $100 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope would be either near the university's Mees Observatory, which already focuses on the sun, or the aging Mees facility could be torn down and replaced.

More than 75 other sites were considered. The other finalist sites are Big Bear Lake in California, La Palma in the Canary Islands off Spain, Panguitch Lake in Utah, Sacramento Peak in New Mexico and San Pedro Martir in Baja California, Mexico.

The solar telescope, which the the National Science Foundation will pay for, is a collaborative project by 22 American institutions, including UH, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Lockheed Martin and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Mike Maberry, assistant director of the Institute for Astronomy, said a decision on the telescope's home probably would occur within the next two years and construction likely would begin at least two years after that.

Another proposal for Haleakala is the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, which would be the world's most powerful telescope for seeking out asteroids that could hit the Earth. The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded the institute $3.4 million for the first year of design work, and the institute is trying to decide where to put the telescope: Mauna Kea or Haleakala. The Air Force wants the telescope operating by 2006.

Maberry said no more new construction will occur on Haleakala before the master plan is ready. The plan includes an archaeological study documenting 29 ancient features, including wind shelters, temporary habitation sites, petroglyphs and a possible ceremonial area. Five features were previously unrecorded.

Maxwell has been hired to prepare the cultural component of the plan. Included will be a stringent set of rules that mandate cultural sensitivity, he said.

Maberry said the master plan will not call for wall-to-wall observatories. The more facilities there are, the more heat is generated to disturb the atmosphere and degrade the quality of the research.

The site, he said, is already "fairly well developed," which restricts the number of future sites. "But we can also recycle sites."

Maberry said Haleakala's remote locale and ideal viewing conditions make it one of the top five sites in the world for astronomy and probably the best site for solar astronomy.