mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

With astronomy so important to Hawaii, respect is vital

By IfA Director Gunther Hasinger, co-signed by state Sen. Will Espero, and Henk Rogers, founder and chairman of the Blue Planet Foundation, and published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, April 28, 2015

Hawaii is the best place on Earth to observe the heavens. Astronomers are deeply grateful to the Hawaiian people for allowing access to the precious skies over Mauna Kea. Nearly every astronomical breakthrough in the last 50 years involved telescopes in Hawaii.

With the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), Hawaii will maintain its leading position creating new knowledge about the universe.

How does the Hawaiian community benefit from the telescopes? Hawaii has a reputation as a modern place of discovery. Astronomical objects have Hawaiian names, such as "Haumea," the first dwarf planet discovered after Pluto, or the recently identified supercluster "Laniakea," our cosmic home. The International Astronomical Union will bring several thousand astronomers to Honolulu this August.

After the devastating tsunami of 1960, astronomy on Mauna Kea was established as a new economic force for Hawaii island. Today, astronomy's annual economic impact on Hawaii island exceeds $90 million. Tax revenue helps fund road improvements, waste management, social services and education. Direct spending supports local businesses.

The observatories provide more than 500 well-paid, clean, high-tech jobs. Astronomy diversifies the economy and gives local youth opportunities to realize their potential without leaving family and friends here. This segment of the Hawaii island economy will grow substantially with TMT.

Arguably the most important aspect is education. UH and the telescopes support a pipeline of STEM education: "Journey through the Universe" reaches over 7,000 K-12 students annually. HI-STAR mentors high school students, many of them Native Hawaiian, to participate in science fairs and pursue STEM careers. The Akamai program provides internships for technical careers. Community efforts by TMT and private donors generously support this pipeline.

The Hawaii Island New Knowledge fund recently distributed grants for teacher-generated classroom projects for 3,600 students, and provided $500,000 in education grants to nonprofits and schools.

Each year, TMT will provide $2 million for education and workforce development.

Astronomy undergraduate programs in Hilo and Manoa and the Manoa graduate program are some of the finest in the country.

Extensive public outreach programs share the voyage of discovery with the entire state. Every night, the visitor information station at Halepohaku provides free public stargazing and welcomes 300,000 visitors each year.

The Office of Mauna Kea Management has the full support of the observatories to malama the mountain. The August 2014 state audit found that "UH and DLNR have addressed many of our recommendations. … The result is an improved and more comprehensive framework that coordinates the agencies' efforts to manage and protect Mauna Kea while balancing the competing interests of culture, conservation, scientific research and recreation."

The Comprehensive Management Plan is the framework for all activities on the mountain.

Observatories and UH perform mandatory cultural and natural resource orientations, inspection of equipment for invasive species, and enforce safety rules and regulations. All proposed projects on the mountain complete a public review process involving the Native Hawaiian advisory council Kahu Ku Mauna and the management board.

Rangers are on duty all year, monitoring activities, responding to emergencies, interacting with visitors, and addressing cultural, scientific and natural resources. They are guardian angels for those 300,000 visitors each year.

Finally, Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services maintains the road up the mountain — grading the road and clearing it of snow and ice — so that access is available to all and the community can experience this amazing site.

Cultural practitioners have absolute priority in accessing the mountain. There are clear signs noting the cultural importance of Mauna Kea and asking everyone to be respectful.

With its financial contribution to the management of the mountain, TMT enables an even better balance between culture and science on Mauna Kea.