Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Telescopes’ impact
to be studied

OHA hails the move by NASA
to evaluate environmental
effects atop Mauna Kea

In a decision praised by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, NASA announced yesterday it will conduct a detailed environmental impact study of the Mauna Kea summit, where it wants to build what could be one of the strongest telescopes in the world.

At a joint news conference to announce the study, OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said she was pleased that the National Aeronauics and Space Administration would "conduct and complete an environmental impact statement prior to engaging in any further development or construction of telescope facilities at or near the summit of Mauna Kea."

Apoliona introduced two NASA officials, who flew in from Washington, D.C., for the announcement and presented them a copy of a 2001 report called "Mauna Kea -- The Temple, Protecting the Sacred Resources."

NASA has proposed a $50 million Outrigger Telescope Project in which four to six "outrigger" telescopes in 35-foot-high domes would be installed at the W.M. Keck Observatory. The nearly 6-foot outrigger telescopes would be arranged around the two existing Keck telescopes, which are each about 33 feet and stand in 111-foot domes.

OHA, acting on behalf of Hawaiians who were angry about further development on the sacred summit, sued NASA, alleging that the environmental assessment the space agency conducted "was inadequate and not done in accordance with existing law."

On July 15, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that NASA's environmental assessment was inadequate. She ruled the assessment looked only at the impact of construction and not the "cumulative development impact" of operating four to six more telescopes. The court did not order NASA to conduct an environmental impact study.

But yesterday, NASA officials said the more detailed study, expected to cost as much as $1 million, was necessary.

"We have heard the message from native Hawaiians that they want a more complete and methodical study," said Carl Pilcher, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology, astronomy and physics.

Pilcher stressed that the new telescopes would be built on land that has already been used, rather than areas that have never been touched. He said NASA has funded only four of the six planned telescopes so far.

Using a technique called interferometry, the complex of telescopes would be connected by underground "light pipes" so they would function as one giant telescope with the power to show an unprecedented amount of detail in space, according to Pilcher.

"The science is very exciting," Pilcher said. "We should now have the tools to see planets that have been too small to see before. We should see new planets being born. And maybe we can answer the question: Are we alone? Is there life on any other planets?"

The outrigger project is part of NASA's Astronomical Search for Origin program that studies how stars and planets form and whether life exists on other planets.

Apoliona praised NASA for "doing the right thing," rebuilding trust and demonstrating "good faith" by conducting the impact study.

She also said OHA would "continue to makaala (be watchful) to ensure NASA complies with its responsibilities."

"It is not OHA's intent to stand in the way of responsible, well-planned, culturally sensitive science," she said.

However, she added, it wants to make sure that any development is culturally sensitive.


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