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Haleakala chosen for solar scope


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POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

PUKALANI, HAWAII » Scientists hope they will be observing previously unseen sunspots and solar flares with a powerful new telescope that a federal agency wants to build on Maui.

The National Science Foundation selected Haleakala over Big Bear Lake, Calif., and Spain's Canary Islands last week as the site for a $300 million solar telescope. It announced the decision Tuesday in the Federal Register.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources must approve the project.

The observatory's 13-foot-diameter main mirror would make it the world's largest solar optical telescope, a telescope that collects light to look at the sun.

It would provide the sharpest-ever views of the sun, enabling scientists to look at phenomena too small to be seen with existing equipment.

“;This will allow for the greatest advancement in our understanding of the star that allows life to exist on our planet,”; said Mike Mayberry, assistant director of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

Mayberry said he expects construction to begin next fall and take seven years. He said the telescope would result in at least $80 million in local construction work, create at least 35 full-time jobs for mostly local residents and generate $18 million annually for the Maui economy.

Native Hawaiian activists plan to protest the decision, charging the telescope would defile a mountain they consider sacred.

Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. said the telescope was unnecessary, ugly and extremely disrespectful to Hawaiian culture. He called on Hawaiians to lie down in front of construction equipment with him to prevent the telescope from being built.

“;There's enough junk up there already to completely annihilate the spirituality of Haleakala,”; Maxwell said.

The debate echoes similar disputes involving telescopes atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawaii island.

A consortium of California and Canadian universities wants to built the world's largest telescope atop Mauna Kea. Environmental and native Hawaiian activists say the project would harm endangered species and defile the mountain.

The foundation plans to build its solar telescope on a half-acre spot among a cluster of observatories near Haleakala's summit. The University of Hawaii manages an 18-acre complex that hosts about a dozen telescopes there.