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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 10, 2006

NASA budget cut imperils Mauna Kea project

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i Budget cuts at NASA may have killed the controversial "Outrigger" telescopes project planned for Mauna Kea, an unexpected setback for Big Island astronomy that was greeted with relief by opponents of the project.

The federal government has already spent $15 million to $20 million on the Outrigger project, which would put four to six smaller telescopes around the existing twin 33-foot telescopes of the W.M. Keck Observatory, enhancing the deep-space images captured by Keck.

It would cost another $20 million to $25 million to build the Outrigger telescopes, but the draft 2007 NASA budget includes no money to complete the effort, said Frederic Chaffee, director of the Keck observatory.

Chaffee said he doesn't know yet whether new funding can be found or if the project will ever be built.

Rolf Kudritzki, director of the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, said it is too early to write off the Outrigger project. But he said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is in the midst of a budget crisis and "I'm not optimistic."

Kudritzki said tentative plans called for construction to begin on the Outrigger project by October if the UH Board of Regents gave final approval to the effort. However, that timeline assumed NASA would include money for the project in its 2007 budget.

Work cannot begin unless full funding for the project is ensured, he said.

Kealoha Pisciotta, president of the cultural group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, said the NASA budget cut offers some relief to opponents who worried that the project would further harm the sacred ground and the delicate ecosystem on Mauna Kea.

"I say mahalo, Ke Akua, for this small period of respite for the little guys," Pisciotta said.

NASA has been planning the Outrigger telescopes since 1998, but the project stalled repeatedly as Hawaiian and environmental groups mounted resistance and legal challenges.

Critics of the project worry about the impacts that world-class astronomy is having on cultural and environmental resources on the mountain. UH began developing Mauna Kea for astronomy in the 1960s, and the summit has 13 observatories and more major telescopes than any other peak.

The 13,796-foot Mauna Kea is traditionally sacred for Hawaiians as the meeting place of the sky god Wakea and the earth mother Papa, who eventually became the parents of the first ancestor of the Hawaiian people.

Outrigger opponents fought the project in a drawn-out contested case before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, and took the fight to court when the board issued a permit for the project.

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs also sued over the project, challenging a NASA decision to conduct an environmental assessment for the project. NASA resolved the suit by agreeing to complete an impact statement at a cost of about $2 million.

If the Outrigger telescopes are never built, the purely economic impact would be modest. Apart from the construction spending, Outrigger was expected to generate just eight new full-time jobs and to increase the operating budget of the Keck observatory by $5 million, to $7 million a year.

But supporters of astronomy worried that the years of delays and resistance to Outrigger might hurt Mauna Kea's reputation as a world-class astronomy center.

The concern is that sponsors of newer and more advanced telescopes might decide to put the projects at other sites around the world that will be easier to develop.

Kudritzki said the NASA cut of the Outrigger project is a "loss for science," but is not a dire signal about the future of astronomy on Mauna Kea.

He said new projects are being planned that do not rely on NASA funding, including a proposed Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT that would be the largest and most powerful ever built. Kudritzki has said there is a good chance Mauna Kea will be selected for the TMT project if it is clear that the state wants it.

Outrigger is part of NASA's Origins Program to study how stars and planetary systems form, and whether habitable planets exist around nearby stars. Chaffee said the search for nearby planets that might support life is part of "one of the most important scientific adventures of our time."

Outrigger was one of many "extremely worthy projects" NASA canceled, and Chaffee said he believes that the U.S. is falling behind in basic support of research and science.

"That, I think, is the big worry of which the Outriggers are just one small example," he said.

"That's shameful as a nation, that in the 21st century, when science is crucial to our very existence ... , this is the way we have chosen to move forward. It's more than a shame it's a disgrace, really."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.