Budget ax looms over telescopes
A NASA proposal cutting funds for a project on Mauna Kea has isle astronomers concerned
HILO » Funding for the Keck Outrigger Telescope project on Mauna Kea has been eliminated from NASA's draft 2007 budget, possibly killing the $50 million, four-telescope project, University of Hawaii astronomy head Rolf Kudritzki confirmed.
The proposed cut is part of $2 billion in funding for numerous projects which would be shifted in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget to support the space shuttle program, Kudritzki said. He called the proposal "catastrophic."
Keck Observatory head Fred Chaffee called the $2 billion cut "alarming," saying some programs being cut are much farther along than the Outriggers. "It is a sad and disappointing year for NASA science," he said.
The two existing Keck telescopes, each with a main mirror 33 feet across, are the largest on Earth.
The Outrigger project would initially place four much smaller telescopes with 6-foot mirrors around the giant main telescopes. Two others, for a total of six, might be added later.
The small telescopes are named in comparison to small balancing outriggers attached to fishing canoes.
Light from all of the telescopes would be combined in a process called interferometry.
Because the greatest distance from one telescope to the other would be 275 feet, interferometry would create the equivalent of a single telescope with a mirror that large.
Observers held varying degrees of hope that the project is not dead. Kudritzki said the likelihood is high, but scientists across the country are protesting.
Mark McGuffie, head of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, which has supported the Outriggers, said alternative funding sources might be found. An information source recommended by Kudritzki, www.newscientistspace.com, suggested funding might come from other nations or from private industry.
Chaffee said the California Association for Research in Astronomy, which runs Keck, has not decided how to respond.
"This is 2-day-old news, and we've been working on this project for eight years," he said. He predicted "months of hearings" by Congress before a final NASA budget is adopted.
Kudritzki explained that he received a phone call about the proposed cut Monday.
NewScientistSpace says that was the day NASA revealed a $16.8 billion 2007 budget with the $2 billion cuts spread over five years.
Word was slow to reach Hawaii, with some of the strongest opponents of the Outriggers unaware of it.
Debbie Ward, co-chairwoman of a Sierra Club committee dealing with Mauna Kea, was part of a group of people who unsuccessfully fought a state Department of Land and Natural Resources permit for the Outriggers. The project still needs approval from university regents.
Ward said opposition to other Mauna Kea projects will continue because of environmental issues.
"It's highly unlikely that opposition (to other astronomy projects) will stop because the Outriggers have been killed," she said.
Another opponent, Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, said a Circuit Court appeal against the permit for the Outriggers is still pending. The appeal deals not only with the telescopes, but also the alleged lack of a proper management plan for the summit, she said.
She said the project might be complete now if the proponents had built it in an alternate site in Spain's Canary Islands.