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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 20, 2004

Maui telescope work to start

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

The University of Hawai'i is hoping to begin construction next month on a $5 million telescope atop Haleakala that will act as the prototype for the world's most powerful telescope for seeking out asteroids that could hit the Earth.

Officials are awaiting a few minor government approvals before construction can begin at the site of the Lunar Ranging Experiment Observatory, or LURE, the NASA-financed satellite-tracking facility that is closing June 30.

The plan is to renovate the inside of the LURE building, replace the south dome and install cutting-edge optics, camera and computer equipment for the initial test run of the $20 million-plus Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System project, or Pan-STARRS.

The UH Institute for Astronomy is conducting environmental studies to help determine where to build the full Air Force-financed Pan-STARRS array, a four-telescope system that officials hope will be fully operational by the end of 2007, either atop Haleakala or on the Big Island's Mauna Kea.

For now, Pan-STARRS Telescope No. 1 will be built on Maui as a prototype to "shake out the bugs" for a couple of years, said Ken Chambers, UH associate astronomer and chief scientist for the Maui facility.

The Air Force wants the initial telescope in operation by 2006, and even though scientists will be learning as they go, Chambers said he still expects to produce "a lot of fantastic science" during the initial phase.

The prototype — and ultimately the full array of telescopes — will survey the sky every four days. By taking a picture of the universe over and over, researchers will be able to spot potentially dangerous asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth. In concept, the information will offer the time needed to do something to change the orbit of any asteroid before it hits.

"We're due for one," Chambers said. "It could be in millions of years or it could be next week. But it will happen."

In addition to asteroids, the telescope will track other moving objects — stars, galaxies, planets, comets, supernova, gamma-ray bursters — and allow scientists to investigate the evolution of galaxies and the ultimate fate of the universe.

"It will allow us to predict the future," he said. "If we get this to work, it's going to be quite fantastic."

UH astronomer Nicholas Kaiser, chief scientist of the project, is the principal investigator, while astronomer John Tonry invented the project's detector device.

As for the prototype, Chambers said the project will offer a boost to Maui's economy with the addition of construction jobs, new scientific personnel and other positions. The Maui High Performance Computing Center is a partner in the effort.

The likely preferred site for the full Pan-STARRS array is Mauna Kea, because of its higher elevation. But there are other considerations, including available sites and political hurdles. Native Hawaiians and environmentalists have been vocal in their opposition to new projects atop Mauna Kea.

If Haleakala is not chosen for the full array, the optics and camera will be taken from the facility and shipped to the Big Island. What would become of the old LURE observatory is uncertain for now, but Chambers said he would hope a private fund-raising effort would emerge to allow the facility to continue as a UH teaching observatory.

That might become important, he said, because if the Big Island is selected, Pan-STARRS might take over the university's 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.