Technicians Granted Access for Gemini Observatory Repairs
Less than 24 hours after having been denied access to fix a critical issue at the Gemini telescope, two technical staff were able to successfully gain access to the summit facility at approximately 10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, according to a July 24 press release from the Gemini Observatory atop Mauna Kea.
At approximately 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, a car containing technicians from Gemini Observatory was stopped by activists from entering the Mauna Kea Access Road. The observatory had been assured access the previous day in conversation with law enforcement and the Office of Maunakea Management.
Access assurances from activists were offered in advance through law enforcement and the Office of Maunakea Management, provided the observatory could send its technicians immediately, said Gemini Observatory Associate Director Dr. Andy Adamson in the press release.
Observatory personnel were notified at approximately 9 p.m. on Tuesday that a window of time for road access had been offered, extending only overnight. After risk assessment and careful consideration, Gemini leadership elected to send the two-person crew to attempt the technical work. The crew departed from the Hilo base facility at approximately 10 p.m. and successfully entered the Mauna Kea Access Road at the base of Maunakea at 10:45 p.m.
Gemini Observatory uses compressed helium—a non-toxic inert gas that exists in the atmosphere naturally—in a cooling circuit to maintain stable low temperatures for two highly-delicate instruments used in astronomical observations. The cooling system needed urgent repair, which required specialized technicians to shut down in order to prevent damage to the instruments and the cooling circuit itself.
The small crew successfully executed their plan to shut off the compressors, shut down and start warming up the two at-risk instruments, disconnect specific joints in the cooling system and perform a standard facility inspection that is usually conducted on a daily basis during normal operations.
The crew concluded their work just after 2 a.m. and returned to Gemini’s Hilo base facility after 3 a.m.
“The observatories hope to return as soon as possible to long-term reliable access to our facilities so that we can resume operations and safely return to scientific observations each night,” said Dr. Adamson. “We are grateful to law enforcement for facilitating safe access for this critical repair work, preventing significant damage to the complex instruments. We are proud of and grateful for the efforts of the two observatory personnel who completed the delicate technical work under such unusual conditions.”
Despite prior public statements indicating observatory technicians would not be denied access to the telescopes, activists contradicted their earlier position on Tuesday. Activists told observatory personnel that without a formal, public letter from the observatories—supporting activists’ demands of the state—access for critical technical maintenance is no longer supported.
Upon approach, the car of technicians was initially waived through the bamboo gate; the driver stopped to speak with an official from the Office of Maunakea Management, at which point a kupuna approached the car, stating that access was not to be allowed.
Five additional activists then moved to stand in front of the car. This denial of access was contrary to the understanding of access approval by the Gemini crew members and the individual who had initially opened the gate.
The car of technicians respectfully pulled to the side of the road at the request of the activists and waited for approximately 45 minutes. During that time, activist leaders indicated that they were working to determine whether the technicians should be allowed access.
Eventually, the Gemini crew members elected to turn back, given the uncertainty of access.
The crew was flagged down on their way away from the access point with an appeal from activists to continue to wait. The crew stopped to speak with the activists briefly before continuing to the Gemini base facility in Hilo.
The Maunakea Observatories continue to support the efforts of state and county law enforcement to restore safe and reliable access to the access road.