Proposed Taiwanese research facility on Big Island would listen for ‘whispers from the sky’
April 22, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
A Taiwanese astronomy organization needs a quiet place to listen for faint signals from outer space that could shed light on the history and structure of the universe. A small spot on the Big Island fits the bill.
The Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics wants to build a small facility on a 2-acre site situated in a larger 10.7-acre parcel about 1,375 feet southeast and makai (seaward) of the intersection of Wood Valley and Makakupu roads just north of Pāhala in Kaʻū.
The facility would be used for studying the origins of fast radio bursts, which are powerful, milliseconds-long blips of radiation that have puzzled scientists since their discovery nearly 20 years ago.
“Although their exact causes remain uncertain, astronomers are now beginning to use the bursts as tools to probe the cosmos — from untangling the nature of the cosmic web to measuring the expansion of the universe,” according to an article published in January in the journal Nature.
The institute, in collaboration with a Canadian project and colleagues on the mainland, intends to study the sources and origins of the bursts, which requires a “radio-quiet” site.
While at their source they are very energetic, by the time the fast radio bursts reach Earth, they’re extremely faint, quieter than radio signals from manmade devices such as cellphones, cellphone towers, walkie-talkies and even FM radio stations.
Based on surveys of 50 to 60 sites around the island conducted by officials with the organization, Kaʻū was found to be the best radio-quiet location due chiefly to Mauna Loa providing a shield from those louder radio waves.
“Hawai‘i’s a special place to carry out this research,” said Geoffrey Bower, chief scientist for the institute’s Hawai‘i operations, in testimony to the Hawai‘i County Windward Planning Commission on April 6. “As optical astronomy suffers from light pollution, radio astronomy suffers from radio frequency interference. So an isolated location shielded — from television, cellphone, all sorts of communication devices, your iPhone — by the mountain walls that surround the valley makes it very special.”
After months of delays, the planned facility got a boost during that meeting, winning a favorable recommendation from the commission for its special use permit.
The Big Island also is a good location, Bower said, because it allows researchers here to work with telescope arrays in Asia and North America, not only connecting results and localizing events but providing the opportunity to see the sky at times when other telescopes cannot.
“These are bursting events that occur, actually, just for a millisecond duration and propagate across the universe,” he said. “So if you blink, you miss it.”
The research facility would include 10 commercial TV satellite dishes, each 20 feet in diameter, with a reception capacity of 400 to 800 MHz and facing northeast. There also would be a 50-by-50-foot dipole antenna array. The satellite dishes and antenna are designed for fast radio burst reception only. No outward transmission of radio signals would occur and every effort would be made to limit the amount of radio emissions produced by the electronics at the facility.
“We’re just listening,” said Ming-Tang Chen, deputy director of the institute’s Hawai‘i operations, during the commission meeting. “We’re sitting there, listening to some whispers from the sky.”
It also would be a temporary facility, with the property being returned to its original agricultural use after a projected decade of unattended continuous operation. One person would check on operations once or twice a week.
There would be little to no impact to the surrounding community. The nearest neighbor is more than 1,800 feet to the northwest of the proposed site. There are no historical sites that would be impacted and traffic impacts would be next to nil. Screening plantings also would be installed to prevent view impacts to existing homes and potential building sites nearby.
This is the second site the institute has considered in the Wood Valley area during the past year for a research facility. The request for a special use permit for that site was dropped last April after negotiations with surrounding property owners came to a stalemate. Chen and the institute spent time working with the nearby residents of the new proposed location to allay any of their concerns before bringing the most recent request for another permit to the commission.
A few community members testified during the April 6 meeting, voicing some concerns including prime ag land being used for this project instead of food production — and the unknowns of what, if any, impacts fast radio bursts have on people, land, animals and plants. Some also asked why the project couldn’t be done elsewhere.
“We definitely respect the concerns and we’re doing everything that we possibly can to be as mindful, as minimal, as passive as possible aside from not existing,” said John Pipan, planning administrator with Land Planning Hawai‘i, who represented the institute during the commission’s meeting.
It would be a diversification of the astronomy footprint in Hawai‘i, Bower said, with research no longer confined to mountaintops. Chen and the institute are committed to providing more educational outreach to the community as well. The proposed facility would offer opportunities for students to see and learn about the research conducted there and even the possibility of internships here and internationally.
“That part, you have my word,” Chen told commissioners. “We can do it. We’d like to do it.”
Pipan said at the heart of this project are the the questions: What is this phenomenon? What causes it?
“Research into astronomy and astrophysics helps us to understand our place in the universe and the history and evolution of the cosmos,” Pipan said. “Cutting-edge astronomy research like this is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe and it’s opening up new frontiers of discovery. From the detection of exoplanets orbiting distant stars to the observation of the most distant objects in the cosmos, astronomy research is constantly pushing the limits of what we can see and know.”
It’s also driving the development of new technology and techniques that will allow researchers to study the universe in unprecedented detail — astronomy research is at the forefront of scientific innovation and discovery.
“By supporting this research, we can continue to unlock the secrets of the universe and shape our future in meaningful ways,” Pipan said.