UH-Hilo will decommission beleaguered Hoku Kea telescope

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Under pressure to reduce astronomy’s footprint on Mauna Kea, the University of Hawaii at Hilo plans to remove its Hoku Kea teaching telescope after wasting nearly $800,000 in federal grants on the project.

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Under pressure to reduce astronomy’s footprint on Mauna Kea, the University of Hawaii at Hilo plans to remove its Hoku Kea teaching telescope after wasting nearly $800,000 in federal grants on the project.

The 36-inch telescope was installed in 2010 but never became operational because of numerous defects, including a warped primary mirror, a leaking roof and a faulty control system.

With repairs deemed too expensive, UH planned to spend $450,000 in state funds on a replacement, but the project officially will be scrapped as the university system seeks to meet Gov. David Ige’s request to remove three telescopes on the mountain by the time the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is built.

The decommissioning process for the broken telescope and its 30-foot diameter dome — the smallest on Mauna Kea — is expected to begin by 2016 and be complete following the removal of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in 2018, UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on Monday.

“It’s the only telescope that UH-Hilo manages, and it’s not currently operational,” he said, when explaining the decision.

“Rather than looking to decommission telescopes that are operational and generating a lot of good science, we needed to decommission one that wasn’t operational.”

The move will nonetheless be a major setback for UH-Hilo’s undergraduate astronomy program, which has operated for years without its own working telescope to train students.

“It is hurting us,” said Marianne Takamiya, astronomy department chairwoman.

“It is hurting UH-Hilo, it is hurting Hilo, it is hurting, I think, the young people in Hilo the most.”

As a result of the decision, Straney said the university system has pledged to provide UH-Hilo students viewing time on the 2.2-meter telescope managed by UH-Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy. Other telescopes will be asked to offer time as well.

UH-Hilo purchased the Hoku Kea telescope with a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant to replace an older 24-inch telescope at that site. NSF provided a separate $141,664 grant to pay for one of the telescope’s instruments.

While the dome and telescope were both faulty, Straney and Takamiya said neither the university nor NSF had means to seek reimbursement from the manufacturer.

“It’s not what we want, but there is no insurance or warranty,” Takamiya said.

With Hoku Kea and CSO both designated for decommissioning, the university still needs to find one more telescope to remove to meet Ige’s request.

The governor asked the university to remove 25 percent of the 13 telescopes on the mountain before TMT is built to try to address concerns from protesters, many of whom are Native Hawaiians who view the mountain as sacred land. Thirteen telescopes currently exist on the mountain.

Gunther Hasinger, IFA director, said only the telescopes the university has ownership or control over are on the table for early decommissioning.

Those include UH’s 2.2-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.

The JCMT and UKIRT were transferred to the university within the last few years after the loss of funding partners. Both are operated by a consortium.

The 2.2-meter telescope is about to undergo an approximately $5 million upgrade and renovation. Asked if that means the university plans to keep it, Hasinger said he couldn’t comment.

“We’re still taking to the various entities,” he said, adding an announcement on further decommissioning will be made by the end of the year.

With the Hoku Kea replacement project canceled, Straney said the $450,000 obligated by the state Legislature will be used on the upgrade of the 2.2-meter telescope. Both projects already were lumped together as part of a $2.5 million allocation from the state.

Asked if he thought removing the Hoku Kea will make a difference in the current conflict over TMT, Straney was less than optimistic. But he said it’s a step toward a resolution.

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“It’s a complex set of issues and will take a complex set of steps from all of us moving forward,” Straney said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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