Astronomers express anxiety, excitement at TMT construction site atop Mauna Kea

Astronomers express anxiety, excitement at TMT construction site atop Mauna Kea

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - At the highest point of Mauna Kea, a trail leads to an ahu, or Hawaiian alter. The summit is at nearly 14,000-feet above sea level.

“It’s emotionally chilling. It’s an amazing place,” said Marianne Takamiya, the chair of for UH Hilo’s Physics and Astronomy Department.

The construction site for the Thirty Meter Telescope is on the mountain’s northern plateau, about 400 feet below the summit. The air is cold and thin, and it’s difficult to breath.

TMT says construction should take 10 years ― and when it’s completed, the people of Hilo won’t be able to see it, though residents of Waimea will.

When TMT planners started testing sites 16 years ago, Mark Chun, Associate Director for the Institute for Astronomy at UH Hilo, helped analyze the data. The altitude is above 40 percent of the earth’s atmosphere, and the climate is stable and dry.

"It was always clear to me that Mauna Kea was the best site for this telescope for the science they want to do," said Chun.

With construction about to start, there are mixed emotions among Hawaii astronomers from excitement about the science to some anxiety and shame over the conflict.

“Right now, I do not want anyone to ask me what my profession is,” said Takamiya.

She says during the 2015 anti-TMT protests, some of her students were overwhelmed.

"They were coming to my office crying and they said oh my God. I didn't know I was in the wrong field," she said.

But UH students are guaranteed time to use TMT along with the other telescopes.

"There is no other undergraduate program that has something like that. We have it," she said.

But there have also been setbacks. A $300,000 research telescope was to be installed at UH Hilo's educational observatory on Mauna Kea called 'Hoku Kea'. But when anti-TMT protests erupted in 2015, the University of Hawaii committed to reducing the number of telescopes. This valuable research and teaching tool was caught in the crossfire and sits unused in a laboratory.

"They are frustrated that we don't have anything that we can play with. Play meaning you only learn when you grab an equipment and make mistakes. This is what this is, to learn," said Takamiya.

UH is still looking for a suitable place where the research telescope can be used.

“We didn’t give up on the Hoku Kea. Obviously there’s been a lot going on and now it’s about finding it a home,” said Dan Meisenzahl, UH spokesman.

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