Hawaiians not high on giant telescope

The Maui News
Thursday, July 14, 2005

By HARRY EAGAR, Staff Writer

WAILUKU – The reason Haleakala is preferred for the giant Advanced Technology Solar Telescope is that the mountaintop is so remarkably free of dust – with "10 to 100 times less dust" than other candidate sites, Jeff Kuhn told a group meeting to begin the environmental impact process Tuesday night.

Kuhn, associate director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, would use the ATST for research, but he said the reason the $161 million telescope should be built is "for our children."

If built, the ATST would make Haleakala the "house of the sun" in more than the original conception as the place from which the Polynesian hero, Maui, captured and slowed the sun in the sky.

It would be the most powerful place in the world for the study of solar physics.

Previous research is revealing how the sun affects Earth's climate and inhabitants, Kuhn said, but the extent of those effects may have been underestimated. Knowledge is still too imprecise to allow accurate predictions.

As an example, he cited a startling discovery about two years ago of a group of sunspots larger than any ever before observed.

As solar scientists followed the spots as the sun revolved, they captured a vast explosion – many times bigger than the Earth – from the spots.

That's called a "coronal mass ejection," and scientists had seen them before, only they hadn't known they could be so big.

Fortunately, the spots had rotated to aim away from Earth when the explosion, or solar flare, occurred.

A few months later, a smaller solar event, this one aimed at us, killed a couple of Japanese communications satellites, knocked an electric transmission system out in Sweden and forced planes to be rerouted.

No one at the meeting – the first of three – spoke against doing more research on the sun. But several people were dubious about doing it on Maui.

Most of the two dozen people who attended the meeting at Cameron Center were Hawaiians, and Hawaiians voiced almost all of the questions and comments.

Many of the objections were based on the size, visibility and white color of the ATST, although Ed Lindsey said he would rather see the telescope in "Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, California" or some other state.

"You have to excuse my tone," said Lindsey, but "we here are the best in the world, everybody wants a piece of us."

He said the purpose of the telescope may be "worthy," but the allocation of money for this project instead of other uses shows the "complete disregard of the federal government for the needs of the Hawaiian people."

Leslie Kuloloio was asked to offer the pule to open the meeting, but he declined, saying his feelings were in turmoil.

Charles K. Maxwell Jr. offered the prayer, but he was only lukewarm about the project.

He cited his opposition to the way the Air Force Advanced Electro-Optical System telescope was built.

"This was a very sacred place," he said.

He is preparing a cultural impact study for the project, and he urged others to offer their knowledge:

"If you are against this, let me put it down in my cultural study."

He said that too often, Hawaiians put their objections on record at public hearings but don't follow up.

"Let's fight for it," he said.

"I don't want to see it. Find a different color, where it's not such an insult."

Although worries were expressed about the impact on Hawaiian dark-rumped petrels that nest nearby and about the fact that the site is on ceded – described by Lindsey as "stolen" – land, the most common objection was to the color of the 10-story building.

Jeremy Wagner, the ATST project director at the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, explained why the telescope has to be so big and white.

The mirror will be 14 feet in diameter, the largest solar telescope mirror anywhere, dwarfing the University of Hawaii's Mees Observatory at Science City.

Besides a clean sky, a clear one also will be important.

Haleakala scored far above any other place after climatological studies that lasted about two years, Wagner said.

The instrument will be so sensitive that it has to be mounted at least 30 feet above ground, to avoid the turbulence in the air created by sunlight reflecting off the ground.

The enclosure has to be white because that color is at least four times better than any other in reflecting solar energy. Even so, and although the enclosure will be cooled by giant jalousies, the parts nearest the telescope will have to be artificially cooled with fluid flowing through the metal side panels.

The result would be a structure about 92 feet high.

If placed at the primary site, next to Mees, it would be visible from some communities, certainly Pukalani and probably Kihei.

If placed at the secondary site, the Reber Circle (named after the world's second radio telescope, built atop Haleakala by radio astronomy's inventor, Grote Reber, in a failed experiment before World War II), more of the enclosure would be visible downcountry.

The base would be of concrete with walls 28 inches thick, 67 feet high and 66 feet in diameter.

The ground footprint would be bigger – about 150 feet in its longest dimension – to provide a space for periodic recoating of the mirror.

Some of the support facilities at Mees would be available to ATST, Kuhn said, but he rejected a suggestion that the size issue could be sidestepped by just upgrading Mees.

There are two reasons that wouldn't work, he said.

First, Mees cannot be upgraded that much.

Second, if Mees were shut down for the nearly 10 years the ATST will take to build and get into operation, scientists would have a big gap in the valuable series of solar measurements that Mees has been making.

Kuhn gave a short history of solar observations, which go back 2,000 years in China, about 400 years in Europe.

"What we don't know can hurt us," he said.

The sun feeds life on Earth, but its full force would be trouble if we had to cope with it. We are protected by a magnetic shield, but this shield is variable.

For a long time, it has been understood that sunspots waxed and waned on a 22-year cycle, but the spots also vary over much longer, more irregular periods.

"It is almost certain that the temperature of the sun has fluctuated by much more than what we are calling global warming," said Kuhn.

The Earth, or at least western North America, got much warmer in the 1300s, and "native people were vanishing," probably because of droughts that lasted for generations.

The droughts are attributed to the sun and its spots.

Yet though the spots are familiar, they remain mysterious.

"We're beginning to understand the sun gets brighter and hotter when there are more of these dark spots," said Kuhn.

"We don't understand why. You'd think the sun would be cooler," because dark places are ordinarily cooler than bright ones.

"We would be silly not to spend some money to try to understand what's coming," Kuhn said.

The National Science Foundation has been funding the planning and design of the ATST at about $12 million per year for the past five years.

Construction and instrumentation money would have to come from Congress, but Congress will not consider that until an environmental impact statement is approved.

"We are hoping for an invitation from the Hawaiian community to come into Haleakala to open a new window onto the sun," Kuhn said.

The tentative schedule calls for starting construction early in 2007. The structure would be completed in about two years. Further work inside would last until about the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, the mirror and instrumentation would be built between 2010 and 2013, and "first light" would strike the mirror about mid-2013.

A second EIS scoping meeting was held Wednesday night in Kula, and a third will be held at 6:30 p.m. today at the Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani.

The public hearings on the completed draft EIS will come in the middle of next year.

Written comments about what the EIS should cover can be sent to Jeremy Wagner, ATST project manager, National Solar Observatory, 950 N. Cherry Ave., Tucson, AZ 85726. The deadline is Aug. 14.

Information on the project is online at:



Harry Eagar can be reached at heagar@mauinews.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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