By VALERIE MONSON
PUKALANI — The largest solar telescope on the planet could find its home in the legendary "house of the sun" atop Haleakala.
The University of Hawaii observatory at the summit of the mountain is among six finalists from around the world that are being considered to permanently house the $100 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope that's being described as the "most capable" instrument for studying the mysteries of the sun — and how those activities affect life on Earth.
"Culturally and historically, we know Haleakala is the house of the sun and all the scientific data proves that it really is the house of the sun," said an excited Mike Maberry, assistant director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.
He noted it is also rated by the National Academy of Sciences as one of the top projects for the next decade.
Maberry and one of his colleagues, astronomer Jeff Kuhn, explained some of the latest happenings at the top of the mountain during a program sponsored by The Friends of Haleakala National Park on Friday night. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey McCann, commander of the Maui Space Surveillance System, also gave a presentation.
The final decision on where the solar telescope will be located will probably occur within the next two years, said Maberry. Construction would most likely not begin for two years after that.
The other leading candidates for the telescope are: Big Bear Lake in California; La Palma in the Canary Islands off Spain; Panguitch Lake in Utah; Sacramento Peak in New Mexico; and San Pedro Martir in Baja California, Mexico.
More than 750 other locations were also considered.
If Haleakala is chosen, the telescope could be constructed as a separate structure near the existing Mees Observatory (which already focuses on studying the sun). If it's too big for that space, the Mees Observatory would be torn down and replaced by the new facility.
With the prestigious telescope in place, Haleakala obviously would be elevated to an even higher standing among scientists.
"The telescope could play a leading role in future programs of international and historical significance," said Kuhn while showing computer images of swirling sunspots in action.
Maberry told the crowd of about 50 that Haleakala might also beat out Mauna Kea for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) that would track down "killer asteroids" which could crash into Earth. UH, which was awarded a $3.4 million grant from the Air Force, hasn't yet determined the best location for the project: Mauna Kea or Haleakala.
While the idea of more telescopes on top of the mountain thrills astronomers, it raises concerns among those equally protective about the fragile resources of Haleakala National Park, which adjoins the 18-acre stretch of the summit unofficially called Science City and managed by UH.
As the peak has become cluttered with more and more space-exploring facilities, including a massive reflective observatory built by the Air Force, the community has become increasingly concerned about the level of development planned for the summit. Pleas for a master plan have gone unheeded for years, mainly because the state has been less than enthusiastic about paying for one, but Maberry said that UH has been working on a long-range development plan.
Haleakala park Superintendent Don Reeser said Saturday he looks forward to that document.
"We're interested in looking at the whole scheme of things and the scope of the number of telescopes that will be up there," said Reeser. "That's why we need a long-range plan that everyone can comment on, including Native Hawaiians and environmentalists. We need to come out with a plan for future development — or no future development, if that's what the end result is."
Reeser and others expressed those fears two years ago when UH received approval for the Faulkes Telescope, the world's largest outreach and education telescope that will be available to Hawaii students from their classrooms via the Internet. (That telescope should be operational this fall.)
Maberry said UH has no intentions of proposing the solar telescope or Pan-STARRS until the long-range plan has been finished and distributed for public comment.
"I can assure you of that," he said. "We know this is a big concern of both the public and the government."
Because of the recent surveys, Maberry said the summit has been reconfigured to reflect areas that "will not and should not ever be developed." He said the recent studies, conducted with the help of various Maui experts, have identified additional archaeological sites, rare plants and the homes of endangered species in the 18-acre tract.
"Haleakala is more than a sacred vicinity," Maberry said. "It is a temple, a graveyard and it must be protected."
With Haleakala's reputation as one of the premier places in the world to observe outer space and everything in it, Reeser wasn't surprised that it was a leading candidate to get more high-powered telescopes.
"And I'm sure there's others that would like to put their telescopes up there," he said, which is another reason that guidelines are needed.
Kuhn explained why Haleakala has become such a coveted place for institutions to erect their telescopes. He showed graphs of studies undertaken to find the ideal viewing conditions from around the world. Two locations stood out far above the rest: Mauna Kea and Haleakala.
During the daytime, Haleakala is even better for observations than Mauna Kea because Maui has less of a problem with dust, which can interfere with the delicate instruments.
The solar telescope is a collaboration of 22 institutions from around the United States, including UH and several other universities along with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
Because it gets little state support, the Institute of Astronomy relies on partnerships to keep its experiments going. The solar telescope would be funded by the National Science Foundation, said Maberry.