Mauna Kea’s Other Telescopes Caught In TMT Crossfire

Aug 23, 2019

While the Thirty Meter Telescope is the focal point of the protests on Hawaii Island, the existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea have been caught in the crossfire.

Collectively, the 13 facilities atop Mauna Kea go by the name Maunakea Observatories. As the protests grew to block Mauna Kea Access Road, the observatories decided to shut down operations for safety reasons that included being able to get sick or injured employees off the summit if necessary and the safety of the protestors themselves, as 40 or more trucks per day had to navigate through the crowd of protestors.

That shutdown lasted a month before Maunakea Observatories, working with authorities, could be guaranteed access they were comfortable with. This is unprecedented in the 50-year history of astronomy on Mauna Kea.

By the numbers, more than 500 employees were idled, with pay — they took to doing school clean-ups to pass the time. An estimated 2,000 hours of observation time was lost and 400 projects impacted. About $10 million worth of contractors with local vendors and companies were suspended as well — for work ranging from solar panel installation to high-tech upgrades to observatory instruments.

On the science side, it won’t be possible to make up the lost time. Many of the projects involve transient phenomena such as unusual flares around black holes, or the transit of exoplanets across their stars, or the trajectory of near-Earth objects. A project observing the formation of new stars had been hoping to catch a glimpse of phases that last just weeks. Once missed, they won’t be seen again.