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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Rival emerges for Mauna Kea telescope project

 •  Graphic (opens in new window): An alternative to Mauna Kea?

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — NASA's proposed Outrigger Telescopes Project on Mauna Kea has long held out the promise of new jobs and millions of dollars a year in new spending on the Big Island. But suddenly the project doesn't look like a done deal.

Challenges to the project by Native Hawaiian interests and environmentalists have dragged on for years, and some observers now wonder if the controversy could undercut the reputation of Mauna Kea as a world-class place to do astronomy.

What is stirring alarm is a detailed evaluation of an alternate project site — Spain's Canary Islands — in the recently released draft environmental impact statement for the $50 million project.

Rick West, executive director of the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board, said he was concerned to see serious discussion of the alternate site in the report, and that losing the project to the Canary Islands would be "a very negative development."

"I think it would have strong repercussions in terms of any future upgrades and future astronomy development at Mauna Kea," he said.

NASA has been planning since 1998 to build up to six 6-foot outrigger telescopes around the W.M. Keck Observatory to expand its light-gathering capabilities. The Keck's twin 33-foot telescopes are the largest and most powerful optical telescopes in the world.

Critics of continued development on Mauna Kea say loss of the NASA project wouldn't mean the end of astronomy there by a long shot. The mountain has 13 observatories and more major telescopes than any other mountain peak in the world, and that won't change anytime soon, said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

"I really do not support the claim that astronomy would go away," she said. "We already are the world-class, premier astronomy site in the world. That objective was achieved, but at the expense of a lot of things."

The immediate economic impact from the loss of the outrigger project would be significant.

Apart from construction spending, eight new full-time jobs would be created to staff the outriggers, and the new telescopes would increase the operating budget of the Keck Observatory by $5 million, to $7 million a year, according to the EIS.

Also at stake is the development of future astronomy facilities.

Astronomy operations on the Big Island provide almost 500 high-paying jobs and pump about $61 million annually into the local economy. According to a 1999 UH study, astronomy generates direct and indirect economic activity of about $131 million a year on the island, and $142 million for the state as a whole.

A new Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, is being evaluated by a National Science Foundation Working Group. It would be the largest and most powerful telescope ever built.

Kudritzki has said there is a good chance Mauna Kea will be selected for the TMT project if it is clear the state wants it here.

The UH Institute for Astronomy estimates the TMT project would double the existing revenue generated by all of the existing observatories combined, and nearly double the number of jobs.

West of the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board said he believes that if NASA gives up on Mauna Kea for the outrigger telescope project, that would "definitely" have ramifications for the TMT project.

While acknowledging that the cultural impact of astronomy development on Mauna Kea has been "substantial and adverse," the draft EIS prepared by NASA said the outrigger project itself would cause few additional problems. The report also lists mitigation measures to reduce potential effects of the new project.

Scientists familiar with the outrigger project said that despite discussion of the Canary Islands site, Mauna Kea clearly remains NASA's first choice.

Carl Pilcher, the space agency's program executive and program scientist for the project, confirmed NASA still plans to put the outrigger telescopes on Mauna Kea. A measure of its commitment is the $2 million it was willing to spend to prepare the EIS.

Pilcher pointed out that the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that governs federal environmental impact statements, required that NASA look for viable alternatives to the Mauna Kea proposal. The agency did that, reviewing six other possibilities before focusing on the Canary Islands as a "reasonable alternative."

The report concluded that no groups consider that site sacred or of religious importance.

"Mauna Kea is clearly the best site from the standpoint of science," Pilcher said. The draft EIS noted the outriggers on Mauna Kea would be better able to see fainter objects and peer deeper into space than it would from any of the other potential sites.

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, said it is no surprise NASA came up with a viable alternative to Mauna Kea because it is a legal requirement that the agency find and weigh alternatives for the EIS.

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