Halepohaku preferred site for teaching telescope

  • The teaching telescope at UH Hilo has never actually been used to observe the sky, despite being at the university since 2016. (Courtesy photo/University of Hawaii)

  • Dr. Rene Pierre Martin working on the teaching telescope at UH Hilo. (Courtesy photo/University of Hawaii)

The University of Hawaii will solicit public comments on a proposed plan to install a teaching telescope on Maunakea.

Beginning today, UH will hold a “virtual open house” until Oct. 26 to provide information to the public about a plan to place the university’s still-unused 28-inch teaching telescope at Halepohaku, the mid-level facility located at 9,200 feet.

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The open house takes the form of a web page featuring statistics about the telescope itself, plans and renderings of the telescope’s proposed housing, an explanation for why the Halepohaku site is preferred, and a form to submit public feedback.

Rene Pierre Martin, UH-Hilo telescope director and astronomy professor, said the open house is the first step in a process to gauge public reception for the proposed new site.

“(The Halepohaku site) is not final yet,” Martin said. “It is our favorite option, and we have support from the Board of Regents for that option. But we still need consultation from the public.”

Halepohaku has long been discussed as the ideal location for the teaching telescope, because the university’s Hoku Kea observatory site at Maunakea summit is scheduled to be decommissioned along with two other summit observatories as part of the terms for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

While 15 other potential sites had been considered, including three on the mainland, Martin said Halepohaku’s combination of convenience, low light pollution and good weather have made the site ideal.

Martin said the small telescope allows for a small project footprint, and placing the telescope at a site that is already in use minimizes potential harm to archaeological or cultural sites.

“We’ve been very conscious about putting it in places far away from sites for cultural practitioners,” Martin said.

The site proposal includes an 18-foot-diameter fiberglass dome that would enclose the telescope, as well as a platform on which the entire assembly would rest. Martin said the dome is slightly smaller than the dome at Hoku Kea, and can easily be assembled in “about three hours.”

While Martin said the university has made some estimates about the project’s cost, he was not able to disclose those estimates. However, he said, the telescope itself, purchased in 2016, cost about $400,000 along with some observatory components.

Should the project be completed as planned, it will be the first time the teaching telescope has actually been used. The telescope at Hoku Kea was replaced in 2010, but was found to be faulty.

Martin said he concluded in 2013 that attempting to repair the telescope would be too expensive and it would never be reliable even if it was repaired. Instead, the university decided to replace the telescope with a smaller, more modern telescope, which was purchased at about the same time UH identified Hoku Kea as a site to be decommissioned.

Because of this, the new telescope was never mounted at Hoku Kea and has largely been gathering dust, Martin said.

While the telescope has been used as a teaching aid to demonstrate some of the technical issues of working with telescopes, it has never been used to observe the sky – except on one occasion where it was moved into a UH parking lot for a demonstration, only for it to rain almost immediately, Martin said.

The faulty telescope at Hoku Kea, meanwhile, was removed in 2018.

After collecting public comments over the next 30 days, Martin said the Board of Regents will take that feedback into account before deciding how to move forward on the project.

Depending on that decision, the board will then begin an environmental assessment for the project and start the permitting process, with construction estimated to begin in 2023.

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The virtual open house can be accessed at uhhet.konveio.com/university-hawaii-hilo.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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