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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 23, 2003

UH hopes to land ultimate telescope

 •  Map (opens in new window): Mauna Kea proposed site of the largest telescope ever built

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Millions of dollars are about to be spent on studies preparing the way for what will be the largest and most powerful telescope ever built, and scientists at the University of Hawai'i hope to lure the project to Mauna Kea.

Hawai'i and northern Chile are the two front-runners for the giant telescope. Its 98-foot mirror would have 10 times the light-gathering ability of one of the twin 33-foot telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, which has the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world.

But the leader of a Native Hawaiian organization dedicated to preserving cultural and traditional practices on the 13,796-foot mountain said Mauna Kea has 13 major telescopes and doesn't need any more.

"At some point you've got to put a limit," said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the UH Institute for Astronomy, which has developed and manages observatories at Haleakala and Mauna Kea, estimated that the new project will cost $700 million to build and $1 billion to operate over 20 years. It would help cement Hawai'i's reputation as a high-technology center, he said.

Kudritzki is chairman of the National Science Foundation Working Group established last year to study the telescope proposal.

"I think it has to be clear from our side that the state wants this project," Kudritzki said. If there is such state support, the chances are "very, very good" that Mauna Kea will be selected for the new telescope, according to Kudritzki. It is estimated the telescope could be operational by 2012.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is providing the money for a $17.5 million feasibility study. Kudritzki said the University of California, other foundations and the federal government are expected to make contributions toward the estimated $70 million needed for engineering and related studies.

Startup money is becoming available at a time when environmentalists and Hawaiians opposed to development on Mauna Kea are growing more determined and effective in their efforts.

The NASA-financed Keck "outrigger" project has been stalled by a contested-case hearing over a permit request before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, and by an Office of Hawaiian Affairs lawsuit that forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to prepare a new environmental assessment.

The $50 million Keck outrigger project would add as many as six 6-foot telescopes around the Keck observatory to improve the images provided by larger telescopes.

Kudritzki noted that the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan designated an approximate site for a "Next Generation Large Telescope" in the northern plateau area of Mauna Kea on a 36-acre site off the summit ridge. The area is undeveloped.

Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou said that the master plan never won the land board's approval and that the only properly approved plan limits development to 13 facilities. More major observatories are on Mauna Kea than on any other peak.

"We really can't support any development of the pristine environment, no way," she said. "If anything, we could consider recycling (by replacing an old observatory with a new one), but we really don't want to see any more leveling of the land and the pu'u."

Kudritzki said public response to the project likely will depend on whether the community is involved in the planning from the start.

From a scientific perspective, the new telescope will extend scientists' vision toward planets around neighboring stars and the most distant galaxies. Kudritzki called the proposed telescope "the most important project for modern astronomy."

In briefings that he has been giving to business leaders and others, Kudritzki contends the project would "secure long-range leadership of Mauna Kea Observatories in the world." He said it would double the economic benefits of the existing observatories, which he estimated at $150 million annually.

Losing the project would diminish Mauna Kea's standing as a premier astronomy center, and financial support would likely decrease, he said.

"The whole project is absolutely innovative with many, many technological challenges," he said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.

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