Hope for Hoku Kea

UH Board of Regents Motion to Place 28-Inch Educational Telescope on Maunakea

Copy Chief Elijah Kahula

Dr. R. Pierre Martin stands by new educational telescope, which sits in the Science and Technology Building

In a meeting on Oct. 16, the University of Hawaiʻi Board of Regents (BOR) brought forth a resolution including, among a series of other Maunakea management items, the new construction of an educational telescope away from Maunakea’s summit.

Mentioned by name in the resolution, transcribed on University of Hawai’i News’ website, the prime candidate location for the telescope is Hale Pohaku, a housing facility for astronomers and support staff below the summit of the mountain. The long resolution, featuring efforts to define and fast-track Maunakea management initiatives, including the decommissioning of a series of telescopes on the mountain, will be voted on by Regents in their next meeting at UH Hilo on Nov. 6.

Hōkū Keʻa, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s defunct, summit-situated educational observatory, has had a long and, recently, tumultuous history. The observatory was originally built in the 1960s for use by NASA and the US Air Force, according to the UH Hilo Educational Observatory (UHHEO) website. In 1970, the University of Hawaii acquired the telescope, then gave control of the telescope to UH Hilo’s Astronomy and Physics Department in order to train undergraduates on the instrument in 2003.

The old 24-inch telescope housed in the small observatory was replaced by a new, but defective, 36-inch telescope in 2010. As a result, the site was unusable for stargazing, leaving students in UH Hilo’s Astronomy program without a dedicated educational telescope.

Since 2012, UH Hilo Astronomy professor Dr. R. Pierre Martin has been trying to rectify the situation. Martin, who’s career has focused on operating astronomical observatories, led a team that looked at how to fix the defective telescope, only to finally decide to replace the instrument entirely.

In 2016, a small, modern telescope and other state-of-the-art equipment, including a remote-operated dome, were purchased under his recommendation using a Capital Improvement Project grant. If the telescope is put on Maunakea, Martin says that it will be made available to not only students at UH Hilo, but open to high school students and other members of the public for educational purposes. The new telescope was assembled, and now sits in a lab at UH Hilo’s Science and Technology Building (STB).

With a telescope for UH Astronomy students finally in reach, other hurdles for students who wished to use Hōkū Keʻa were arising. Despite the modern telescope’s approval for purchase having gone through already, the summit site for Hōkū Keʻa was marked to be removed from the mountain in 2015 by the Board of Regents before an alternate site had been approved.

In a letter retrieved from the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR) website from UH Hilo to the Office of Maunakea Management (OMM), on Sept. 2015, UH Hilo submitted a formal Notice of Intent to Decommission (NOI) for Hōkū Keʻa’s current summit site. The mission of decommissioning telescopes is to return sites to as close to their original natural form as possible.

Addressing the concern of environmental impacts of the newly-proposed Hōkū Keʻa location, Martin says that besides its satisfactory elevation and low light pollution, Hale Pohaku was selected in part because it is on already-broken ground. Because of the small size, he says, the observatory including the telescope and dome can be built on a 20 by 20-foot slab of concrete situated between Hale Pohaku’s other facilities.

The decommissioning selection was the result of an effort to comply to Governor Ige’s 10-point plan for the improved management of Maunakea, which included bringing down at least 25 percent (at least 3) of the 13 telescopes currently on the summit.

Though the NOI also featured the possibility of a future educational telescope at a different site on the mountain, students would be without a dedicated training telescope in the meantime. “The educational needs that Hōkū Keʻa was intended to meet will instead be met with observing time on other Maunakea telescopes and possible future installation of an educational telescope at an alternate site away from the Maunakea summit,” reads the NOI. Since Hōkū Keʻa’s current site on the mountain still housed a non-operational telescope at the time (which has since been removed from its housing), the decision to decommission the site may have seemed obvious to the BOR.

The plan was met with opposition by community stakeholders in astronomy and education, however. In May 2016, the series of public comments prompted the Maunakea Management Board (MMB) to defer the decommissioning of the telescope site until further community input was collected.

In a meeting in September 2019, more than three years after the initial deferment, MMB held another public hearing on the telescope, as well as its possible relocation. Among others, Callie Crowder, an alumni of the Physics and Astronomy Department at UH Hilo and remote observer at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), spoke to advocate for the need of an educational telescope on the mountain.

In a video of the testimony by Hawaii Video News Now, Crowder states, “Today, Hoku Kea sits in a windowless room and has for three years now. This is a giant waste of space, money, and scientific potential. It’s a tremendous loss for every University of Hawai’i and high school student who could be using it right now.”

In a phone interview, Crowder told Ke Kalahea that she attributes her current position directly to the experience she gained her senior year in working with Dr. Martin to set up and operate the new Hoku Kea telescope. She claims that it was a critical experience that resulted in gaining her current position for the CFHT. For students seeking careers in astronomy to have experience with operating a telescope is invaluable, says Crowder.

Martin echoes this sentiment. “Our students have been suffering from a lack of this telescope for years now,” he says.

According to Martin, the list of educational opportunities that the new, state-of-the-art telescope will allow is long. He says the telescope will allow observers to monitor asteroids, comets, chemical evolutions in stars and supernovas, and impacts on the moon, among many other capabilities. Because the telescope can be operated remotely and would become a part of an international network of astronomy, the telescope would be able to track phenomena occurring in very short time periods.

Martin says that the major advantage Hōkū Keʻa would offer to students is extensive time and autonomy using the telescope, an invaluable resource for training budding astronomers. Having ample time on a telescope allows students to design and conduct research projects that would enable them valuable praxis, including constructive learning opportunities from error. Martin says, “I don’t mind if people make mistakes. If [a student] takes a picture on it on accident, so be it. That means they’ll learn something.”

Should the BOR vote to pass the resolution, the university’s target deadline for Hōkū Keʻa’s construction will be April 2021.