Thursday, October 20, 2011

Decision regarding the Solar telescope in Maui getting closer

by Salman Hameed

There are plans for a giant 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) to be built on top of Haleakala in Maui. This would be a significant improvement over the aging older solar telescopes and would indeed contribute enormously to our understanding of our closest star. But I have been quite apprehensive about this project (see an earlier post: Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new solar telescope?). This is going to be a huge structure. The construction is going to further strain relations with the native Hawaiian population as well as raise concerns about the damage to environment. The problem is that this kind of episode has played out on the neighboring Mauna Kea (see related posts here and here), and the result is observatories at the cost of years of delays, mistrusts, and lawsuits. But then Mauna Kea is one of the best places for optical and infrared astronomy - and may be one can argue that some of the insensitivity to cultural and environmental issues was worth it. But a solar telescope can indeed be built elsewhere. Light pollution is certainly not an issue. Stability of the atmosphere is important, but then there are places in New Mexico and Arizona that should be able to compete within a reasonable level. I really don't see the justification for ATST in face of opposition from the local groups. From last week's Nature:
Last December, more than seven years after the NSO chose the site, Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources gave permission to develop it. A group called Kilakila O Haleakala ('Majestic is Haleakala' in Hawaiian) has contested the decision. An endangered seabird, the Hawaiian petrel or 'ua'u (Pterodroma sandwichensis), nests near the proposed site. Furthermore, some Native Hawaiians say that the telescope's stark white enclosure — necessary to control heat-induced air currents within the scope's optical path — will scar a sacred area. But the telescope builders say they will do all they can to mitigate the impacts. Construction workers will limit vibrations that could collapse the petrels' burrows, and will receive 'sense of place' training to avoid culturally insensitive missteps. 
Honolulu-based lawyer Steven Jacobson, the arbiter appointed by the board to re-evaluate the permit, says that he will hand in his recommendation in the next week. NSO director Stephen Keil is cautiously optimistic that Jacobson will give the telescope the green light — although he has seen the process take plenty of detours before. "It keeps me awake every night," he says. "This is part of doing business in Hawaii."
Hmm...well, may be the reasons why this is "part of doing business in Hawaii" has something to do with the messy history of US takeover of the Hawaiian kingdom in the late 19th century, and then the crappy treatment of the local population. A recognition of this is essential for astronomers to gain respect in these matters - and ATST project in Maui, I think is not only unnecessary, but it is also insensitive. There have been efforts to include financial support for the local Hawaiian community in exchange for ATST. How much money? Well, $20 million over the next 10 years to train native Hawaiians in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Is it worth it? I don't know. I think the answer lies with those who are directly affected by ATST. But is Maui the only place in the US to build this particular telescope? This, I'm pretty sure is not the case, and comparable level of science is achievable from other locations. So may its time to move!

Also see:
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update 

Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

1 comment:

Asad M said...

The high altitude Atacama desert in Chile is a much better place. It is already home to some of the largest telescopes in the world including the VLT http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15275545 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/space/universe/exploration/very_large_telescope
and the newly constructed Alma
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14324804 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15107254