Astronomers at existing Mauna Kea telescopes frustrated as research is delayed by TMT conflict

Updated: Jul. 28, 2019 at 11:11 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The telescopes atop Mauna Kea have been credited with several recent breakthroughs in astronomy, including the first photo of a black hole and the discovery of the first interstellar object in space, which was given a Hawaiian name.

But that work has ground to a halt after the conflict erupted over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which has shut down access to the summit.

“All we’re looking to do is to go up the road and resume what we’ve been doing for 50 years,” said Dr. Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

The CFHT, as it’s also known, has been on the mountain for 40 years.

Simons said the work done at Mauna Kea’s observatories has been groundbreaking and helps in humanity’s quest for knowledge.

“That desire to know. That desire to to explore. And Hawaii’s ability to contribute globally to that context building for all of humanity is really unique,” said Simons.

But the astronomers haven’t been able to observe the heavens while access to the summit is closed.

“The technicians who take care of the equipment on a daily basis really care for those instruments like their babies,” said Rich Matsuda, the chief of operations at the W.M. Keck Observatory. “And so the inability to access the equipment, take care of it on a daily basis, is frustrating, disappointing and difficult for them. They just want to get back to work."

Simons said that taken collectively, the two-week closure of the summit has resulted in the loss of a year’s worth of discovery by scientists.

The scientists are also aware that the issue at hand is much larger that just over construction of the TMT. That issue has been painful for many of the 500 people employed by the telescopes, whose work has come to a halt.

“They have these great bonds within their family and their friends, and now there’s a big rift there,” said Dr. Jessica Dempsey, the deputy director of the East Asian Observatory and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. “And so not only can they not do their jobs, but also now they’re being isolated on one side of this rift, and this is very painful for them.”

The scientists say while the work done on Mauna Kea is important, they are also aware that everyone has to have a voice in whatever happens next.

“Whether they’re scientists, cultural practitioners, language experts, I think they’re going to be the ones that will solve this, but we need to create that space first for that to happen," said Dempsey.

“I don’t know how to get there. Nobody does," said Simons. "I haven’t spoken to anybody who’s got a plan on exactly how to achieve that. but that doesn’t mean I’m dissuaded from the possibility of bringing that around and still somehow making sure that this ends up in a good spot.”

“We’re just looking for a space where we can all live together on the mountain," said Matsuda. "Everyone in peace.”

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