East Hawaii News

NASA Takes Role on One Telescope; Future of Another Unclear

May 27, 2014, 1:27 PM HST
* Updated May 28, 3:50 PM
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It’s official.

There’s new life for the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope atop Mauna Kea.

The future of the telescope with a 12.4-foot mirror was cast in doubt in mid-2012 when the United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council announced that funding for UKIRT would cease in September 2013.

At that time, UKIRT’s board of directors called the news particularly disappointing as the telescope was experiencing significant scientific achievement.

The board said the 138 papers published on its findings in 2011 was the most of any observatory in the world. In 2012, a new record was set with 201 papers, it said.

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The board expressed hope that another organization would take over its operations. If not, the STFC would be required under the terms of the Mauna Kea management plan to dismantle the observatory and restore the site to its original condition.

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But on May 2, University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney notified the state Board of Land and Natural Resources that the University of Hawaii was cancelling STFC’s sublease on the 32,000-square-foot site and would take possession of the observatory.

The land board heard the university’s report at a meeting on Friday.

The agreement calls for the STFC to pay the university $2.5 million, the cost of the eventual decommissioning of the telescope which began operations in 1979.

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There is about 21 years remaining on UH’s lease on the UKIRT site.

According to the University of Arizona’s website, the agreement calls for UKIRT to be operated under an agreement between that university, UH and the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center using funds provided by NASA.

Bob McLaren, associate director of the UH Institute for Astronomy, said the agreement, which is still being finalized, is for two years, and may be renewed at the end of that period.

The Joint Astronomy Centre, which formerly operated UKIRT, and still operates the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, said it received 12 proposals for use of UKIRT.

McLaren said the agreement calls for the telescope to be used in analysis of satellites and debris in orbit around the Earth and for the study of near-Earth asteroids. UH will also retain its 15% of viewing time for research.

The space agency already operates the 9.8-foot NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea.

UKIRT is the largest telescope in the northern hemisphere dedicated to astronomy using infrared energy, which is the study of heat emitted by celestial objects.

Budget woes are also affecting the future of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which operates in the submillimeter wavelength of the radiation spectrum. Its 50-foot dish is used to detect the coldest material in space.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. JAC photo.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. JAC photo.

Announcing it will refocus its efforts on the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes in the Canary Islands, the STFC has said it will cease funding the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope operations in September.

The council is in the process of soliciting proposals for its future use.

There are currently 13 observatories located in the 11,215-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve leased by UH. Its high altitude, dry climate and location relatively free from light pollution make it among the premier sites for astronomy in the world.

An international consortium of universities and astronomical groups has proposed constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Its 100-foot mirror would make it by far the biggest observatory on the mountain.

The university has approved a lease for the TMT. A state judge last month rejected an appeal of a permit tentatively issued by the land board for the telescope.

***Updated Wednesday, May 28.***

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