UH-Manoa’s 2.2-meter telescope to get $5 million makeover

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HILO — Mauna Kea’s oldest telescope will get a makeover later this year, but an internal upgrade will have to wait for additional funds.


HILO — Mauna Kea’s oldest telescope will get a makeover later this year, but an internal upgrade will have to wait for additional funds.

Colin Aspin, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s 2.2-meter telescope, said the observatory’s exterior will be refurbished starting in early May. The observatory atop Mauna Kea became operational in 1970 and was one of the first on the mountain.

The $5 million effort will involve repainting the dome, replacing siding, improving safety and other features, and should be complete in August.

Aspin said he hopes to make the observatory last another 20 to 40 years.

“I look at the 2.2-meter telescope as being like a flagship for the University of Hawaii,” he said. “Because it’s a professional telescope. It’s large enough you can do an incredible amount of good science.”

But it will take longer to make the observatory state-of-the-art once again.

The project, which includes $2.5 million from the state Legislature, also was supposed to make the telescope fully automated, allowing it to be run remotely in Hilo. Costs came in higher than expected, Aspin said.

Additional funding from the Legislature or private sources could be pursued to make that happen. He estimates another $2 million to $3 million is needed.

“Our plan is to be first (on Mauna Kea) to run the whole night without human interaction,” Aspin said.

That also would allow it to respond quickly to view discoveries made by the UH Pan-STARRS sky survey telescopes on Maui, he said.

In addition to eventually becoming fully automated, Aspin said funding for installing adaptive optics, which adjusts for distortion in the Earth’s atmosphere, also is being sought. That could make it as powerful, in some respects, as the Hubble space telescope.

“That’s going to be exciting,” he said.

Funding for adaptive optics is being sought separately through NASA and science foundations.

Aspin said the Office of Mauna Kea Management has reviewed the repair plans to help ensure safety of the public and that the environment isn’t harmed while the work occurs.

“We’re making sure we don’t litter the place, making sure we don’t leave paint chips around, making sure we protect visitors at the summit,” he said. “That, for me, is important that we look after that mountain. It’s a precious place.”

UH-Manoa also has taken steps to give more University of Hawaii at Hilo students time on the telescope. UH-Hilo’s astronomy program is available to undergraduates, while UH-Manoa offers a graduate degree.

That was discussed following an announcement in 2015 that a replacement for UH-Hilo’s Hoku Kea teaching telescope would have to be built off the mountain. Gov. David Ige called for three telescopes to be removed by the time the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is built, assuming it clears regulatory hurdles and doesn’t relocate to the Canary Islands.

The university selected the small Hoku Kea and UKIRT, which it owns, to be removed. A third, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, already was planned to be removed and has since shutdown.

Decommissioning of UKIRT has not begun.

In response to a public outcry, the Office of Mauna Kea Management put the decommissioning process of the existing Hoku Kea dome and telescope on hold while it gets more feedback.

But its replacement, also covered by the Legislature’s appropriation, already has been delivered.

Hoku Kea director Pierre Martin said he is looking for an alternative site for the new 28-inch telescope until disputes involving the mountain are resolved.

He said he is surveying property on the leeward side of Kohala mountain, located at about 1,000 feet above sea level. Martin said the telescope could be there in six to nine months if the site is selected.

The telescope would be used to teach students how to explore the universe as well as how to operate and maintain the equipment.

“I need to get that telescope up and running at some point so we can do what we’re supposed to do with it as soon as possible,” he said. The UH-Hilo campus isn’t an option because the skies are too cloudy.

What happens in the long term depends on the outcome of the TMT process, Martin said.


“Of course, this is our favorite site,” he said, referring to Mauna Kea.

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

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