Mauna Kea Observatories
Mauna Kea is one of the most important land-based astronomy sites in the world.
|Organization||University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy|
|Location||Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, USA|
|Altitude||4205 m (13,796 ft)|
The Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) are a number of independent astronomical research facilities and large telescope observatories that are located at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai'i, United States. The facilities are located in a 525-acre (212 ha) special land use zone known as the "Astronomy Precinct", which is located within the 11,228-acre (4,544 ha) Mauna Kea Science Reserve. The Astronomy Precinct was established in 1967 and is located on land protected by the Historical Preservation Act for its significance to Hawaiian culture.
The location is ideal because of its dark skies, good astronomical seeing, low humidity and position above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, clean air, good weather and almost equatorial location.
Origin and background
After studying photos for NASA's Apollo program that contained greater detail than any ground based telescope, Gerard Kuiper began seeking an arid site for infrared studies. While he first began looking in Chile, he also made the decision to perform tests in the Hawaiian Islands. Tests on Maui's Haleakalā were promising but the mountain was too low in the inversion layer and often covered by clouds. On the "Big Island" of Hawaii, Mauna Kea is considered the highest island mountain in the world. While the summit is often covered with snow the air itself is extremely dry. Kuiper began looking into the possibility of an observatory on Mauna Kea. After testing, he discovered the low humidity was perfect for infrared signals. He persuaded then Governor, John A. Burns to bulldoze a dirt road to the summit where he built a small telescope on Puʻu Poliʻahu, a cinder cone peak. The peak was the second highest on the mountain with the highest peak being holy ground, so Kuiper avoided it.:25 Next, Kuiper tried enlisting NASA to fund a larger facility with a large telescope, housing and other needed structures. NASA, in turn decided to make the project open to competition. Professor of physics, John Jefferies of the University of Hawaii placed a bid on behalf of the university. Jefferies had gained his reputation through observations at Sacramento Peak Observatory. The proposal was for a two-meter telescope to serve both the needs of NASA and the university. While large telescopes are not ordinarily awarded to universities without well established astronomers, Jefferies and UH were awarded the NASA contract infuriating Kuiper who felt that "his mountain" had been "stolen" from "him". Kuiper would abandon his site (the very first telescope on Mauna Kea) over the competition and begin work in Arizona on a different NASA project. After considerable testing by Jefferies' team, the best locations were determined to be near the summit at the top of the cinder cones. Testing also determined Mauna Kea to be superb for nighttime viewing due to many factors including the thin air, constant trade winds and being surrounded by sea. Jefferies would build a 2.24 meter telescope with the State of Hawaii agreeing to build a reliable, all weather roadway to the summit. Building began in 1967 and first light seen in 1970.
Other groups began requesting subleases on the newly accessible mountaintop. By 1970, two 24 in (0.6 m) telescopes had been constructed by the US Air Force and Lowell Observatory. In 1973, Canada and France agreed to build the 3.6 m CFHT on Mauna Kea. However, local organisations started to raise concerns about the environmental impact of the observatory. This led the Department of Land and Natural Resources to prepare an initial management plan, drafted in 1977 and supplemented in 1980. In January 1982, the UH Board of Regents approved a plan to support the continued development of scientific facilities at the site. In 1998, 2,033 acres (823 ha) were transferred from the observatory lease to supplement the Mauna Kea Ice Age Reserve. The 1982 plan was replaced in 2000 by an extension designed to serve until 2020: it instituted an Office of Mauna Kea Management, designated 525 acres (212 ha) for astronomy, and shifted the remaining 10,763 acres (4,356 ha) to "natural and cultural preservation". This plan was further revised to address concern expressed in the Hawaiian community that a lack of respect was being shown toward the cultural values of the mountain.
Today the Mauna Kea Science Reserve has 13 observation facilities, each funded by as many as 11 countries. It is one of the world's premier observatories for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy, and in 2009 was the largest measured by light gathering power. There are nine telescopes working in the visible and infrared spectrum, three in the submillimeter spectrum, and one in the radio spectrum, with mirrors or dishes ranging from 0.9 to 25 m (3 to 82 ft). In comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope has a 2.4 m (7.9 ft) mirror, similar in size to the UH88, now the second smallest telescope on the mountain. Planned new telescopes, including the Thirty Meter Telescope, have attracted controversy due to their potential cultural and ecological impact. The multi-telescope "outrigger" extension to the Keck telescopes, which required new sites, was eventually canceled.
The Reserve was established in 1968, and is leased by the State of Hawaiʻi's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). The University of Hawai'i manages the site and leases land to several multi-national facilities which have invested more than $2 billion in science and technology.
The altitude and isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes Mauna Kea one of the best locations on earth for ground-based astronomy. It is an ideal location for submillimeter, infrared and optical observations. The seeing statistics show that Mauna Kea is the best site in terms of optical and infrared image quality—for example the CFHT site has a median seeing of 0.43 arcseconds.
Accommodations for research astronomers are located at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (often called Hale Pōhaku), 7 miles (11 km) by unpaved steep road from the summit at 9,300 feet (2,800 m) above sea level.
An adjacent visitor information station is located at 9,200 feet (2,800 m). The summit of Mauna Kea is so high that tourists are advised to stop at the visitor station for at least 30 minutes to acclimate to atmospheric conditions before continuing to the summit, and scientists often stay at Hale Pōhaku for 8 hours or more before spending a full night at observatories on the summit, with some telescopes requiring observers to spend one full night at Hale Pōhaku before working at the summit.
Telescopes found at the summit of Mauna Kea are funded by government agencies of various nations. The University of Hawai'i itself directly administers two telescopes. In total, there are twelve facilities housing thirteen telescopes at or around the summit of Mauna Kea. It will also be the site of the Thirty Meter Telescope and is a proposed site for Pan-STARRS.
- Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO): Caltech
- Canada France Hawai'i Telescope (CFHT): Canada, France, University of Hawai'i
- Gemini North Telescope: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Brazil
- Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF): NASA
- James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT): China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Canada
- Subaru Telescope: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
- Sub-Millimeter Array (SMA): Taiwan, United States
- United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT): Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center, University of Hawai'i, University of Arizona
- University of Hawai'i 88-inch (2.2 m) telescope (UH88): University of Hawai'i
- University of Hawai'i 36-inch (910 mm) telescope (Hoku Kea): University of Hawaii at Hilo
- One receiver of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA): United States
- W. M. Keck Observatory: California Association for Research in Astronomy
CSO, UKIRT, and UH88 are scheduled for decommissioning as part of the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan.
Opposition and protests
In Honolulu, the governor and legislature, enthusiastic about the development, set aside an even larger area for the observatory after the initial project, causing opposition on the Big Island, in the city of Hilo. Native kānaka ʻōiwi believed the entire site was sacred and that developing the mountain, even for science, would spoil the area. Environmentalists were concerned about rare native bird populations and other citizens of Hilo were concerned about the sight of the domes from the city. Using town hall meetings, Jefferies was able to overcome opposition by weighing the economic advantage and prestige the island would receive. There has been substantial opposition to the Mauna Kea observatories that continues to grow. Over the years, the opposition to the observatories may have become the most visible example of the conflict western science has encountered over access and use of environmental and culturally significant sites. Opposition to development grew shortly after expansion of the observatories commenced. Once access was opened up by the roadway to the summit, skiers began using it for recreation and objected when the road was closed as a precaution against vandalism when the telescopes were being built. Hunters voiced concerns as did the Hawaiian Audubon Society who were supported by Governor George Ariyoshi.:56
The Audubon Society objected to further development on Mauna kea over concerns to habitat of the endangered Palila, an endemic species to only specific parts of this mountain. The bird is the last of the finch billed honeycreepers existing on the island. Over 50% of native bird species had been killed off due to loss of habitat from early western settlers or the introduction of non native species competing for resources. Hunters and sportsmen were concerned that the hunting of feral animals would be effected by the telescope operations. A "Save Mauna Kea" movement was inspired by the proliferation of telescopes with opposition believing development of the mountain to be sacrilegious. Native Hawaiian non-profit groups such as Kahea, whose goals are the protection of cultural heritage and the environment, oppose development on Mauna Kea as a sacred space to the Hawaiian religion. Today, Mauna Kea hosts the world's largest location for telescope observations in infrared and submillimeter astronomy. The land itself is protected by the US Historical Preservation Act due to its significance to Hawaiian culture but still allowed development.
2006 Hawaii earthquake
A number of the telescopes sustained minor damage during the October 15, 2006 Hawaii earthquake and aftershocks. JCMT was performing an inclinometry run and recorded the earthquake on its tilt sensors. Both CFHT and W. M. Keck Observatory were operational and back online by October 19.
- Lists and comparisons
- Other major international observatories (under active development):
- Historically important observatories (not undergoing substantial development):
- "The Economic Impact of Astronomy in Hawai'i" (PDF). University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. 28 August 2014. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
- About Mauna Kea Observatories
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- "Earthquake Update from W. M. Keck Observatory". W. M. Keck Observatory. Retrieved August 27, 2010.
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