PUKALANI - For nearly a decade, the "line in the lava" - as Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. put it recently - has been clearly delineated over the National Science Foundation's proposed 143-foot-tall solar telescope near the summit of Haleakala.
Native cultural preservationists and Haleakala purists oppose the $161 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope as sacrilegious, unnecessary and flat-out insensitive and ugly.
Meanwhile, astronomers and others view it not only as an opportunity to expand the world's nascent knowledge about the sun, but as a pragmatic tool to help predict and prepare for disasters caused here and in orbit by radioactive "coronal mass ejections" that disable electronics and endanger the lives of astronauts and air travelers.
But the heat now is on both sides to make some of their final arguments in the saga.
The National Science Foundation's board of directors is finally expected to decide whether to give the project the go-ahead by the end of this year, said Mike Maberry from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy's Maikalani Advanced Technology Research Center in Pukalani.
The federal government is accepting comments until June 22 for a supplemental draft environmental impact statement that was published this month for the telescope. The observatory would be built on less than an acre within the 18-acre UH Institute for Astronomy-managed Science City site.
PROPOSED ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY SOLAR TELESCOPE
Public comments on the proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) atop Haleakala must be received or postmarked by June 22.
Copies of the supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the telescope project can be found at all Maui public libraries and on the Internet at atst.nso.edu/.
Public comments will be heard:
* June 3, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Cameron Center in Wailuku.
* June 4, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani.
Original comments should be mailed to Craig Foltz, ATST program manager; National Science Foundation, Division of Astronomical Sciences; 4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 1045; Arlington, Va. 22230.
Other ways to reach Foltz include: telephone, (703) 292-4909; fax, (703) 292-9034; and e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copies of comments also should be sent to:
* The state Department of Health, Office of Environmental Quality Control, Ref. ATST; 235 S. Beretania St., Room 702; Honolulu 96813. Fax: (808) 586-4186.
* Mike Maberry, associate director; University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy; 34 Ohia Ku St., Pukalani 96768. Fax: (808) 573-9557.
* Charlie Fein, KC Environmental Inc.; P.O. Box 1208, Makawao 96768. Fax: (808) 573-7837; e-mail: email@example.com.
Consultation meetings to solicit public input under the National Historic Preservation Act will be held on Maui by the National Science Foundation and Haleakala National Park.
The schedule of meetings is:
* June 8, 1 to 4 p.m. at the Kula Community Center.
* June 9, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Haiku Community Center.
* June 10, 3 to 6 p.m. at Maui Community College's Pilina Building Multipurpose Room.
Once the comments are collected and a series of public meetings are hosted on Maui next month by project sponsors, such as UH, the National Science Foundation, which is a federal agency, must complete a final environmental impact statement in order to comply with the law.
Maberry said that construction could begin as early as fall 2010 and would last about four years. The NSA and its National Solar Observatory branch would spend about $75 million during construction on local labor and materials.
The solar telescope would hire 35 people permanently, most of whom would be Mauians, Maberry said, and it would pump $18 million annually into the local economy.
At just over 10,000 feet high and located in the Pacific Ocean on Earth's most isolated archipelago, Haleakala and the Big Island's Mauna Kea are revered by astronomers for their predictable and mild weather patterns as well as clean and clear views of the atmosphere and space.
Science City is home to about a dozen observatories and numerous large and small telescopes, some of which are owned by the U.S. Air Force and remain top secret. UH owns most of them, though.
The 92-foot-long solar telescope would be housed in an observatory that would be, depending on whom one asks, 11 or 14 stories high. The proposed project would be the world's largest optical solar telescope, with a 13-foot-diameter main mirror that would help provide the sharpest views ever of the sun.
The idea behind the telescope, according to the supplemental draft EIS, is to study solar magnetic activities, the Earth's climate and space weather - mainly sunspots and the mass ejections of radiation they often create when the spots develop in pairs.
The plasma radiation mass ejections, which are related to solar flares, have been known to knock out power grids and disable satellites. They could also sicken or kill astronauts or airline passengers unexpectedly caught in their path, Maberry said.
Scientists hope to use the telescope to help understand and predict the sun's behavior, he said.
The solar telescope would be built on 0.86 acres at Pu'u Kolekole, within sight of Haleakala's summit. In a two-year study, 70 possible sites worldwide were considered for the solar telescope observatory.
"This is not a pork project," Maberry said. "It is a highly peer-reviewed telescope and was identified as the top priority for the National Science Foundation."
But since its inception, the proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope has raised the ire of many Native Hawaiians and their supporters.
The project is just another eyesore on the top of Haleakala, they said. Just digging into the lava rock, which is believed by many Native Hawaiians to be the bones of the volcano goddess Pele, is sacrilegious.
Telescope opponents, such as Maxwell, add that the fact that the 48-year-old Science City is located on ceded lands (former Hawaiian monarchy property taken over by the United States upon annexation and turned over to the state upon statehood) is yet another insult.
The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope would join the following observatories in the Science City complex, all of which are off-limits to the general public:
* U.S. Air Force Maui Space Surveillance Complex and the AEOS telescope, which at 3.67 meters is the largest in the Department of Defense catalog, the Maui Space Surveillance System and the U.S. Air Force Space Command's GEODDS telescope.
* Faulkes Telescope, which is owned by Las Combres Observatories, a private British education and outreach organization.
* UH's Pan-STARS, which boasts the world's largest digital camera at 1.44 giga-pixels, as well as Mees Solar, Solar-C Scatter-Free, Air Glow, Baker Nunn, Zodiacal Light and TLRS 4 observatories.
The observatories' missions vary from studying the size of the universe, to trying to predict whether Earth will run into the path of asteroids or comets, to tracking satellites and space junk.
Last week, Maxwell stood in Pukalani and dismissively waved a hand toward the top of Haleakala, which was literally clouded from view, and declared that although he is a cultural consultant to Science City, he opposes its very existence.
Do they really need to construct yet another bright white and too-tall telescope, Maxwell asked. Why not build it shorter and darker, he asked.
"There's a cumulative effect," he said. "The more you put up there, the more it washes out the sacred nature of the place."
Maberry said that the height is required to meet the telescope's needs, and the light color is necessary for a day-time telescope so it doesn't attract heat, which distorts the image and disrupts targeting systems.
"Everyone understands this is not just a special place for Hawaiians," Maxwell said. "This is where our alii (royalty) were buried, and where the gods and the spirits of our ancestors live."
Maberry said specialists have studied Science City's archaeology extensively and found no burials in the area. The new solar telescope would also be the last project in the undeveloped portion of Science City.
"We're already there," Maberry said. "And we're being as respectful as we possibly can to the host culture and their concerns."
Experts such as Maxwell are hired to educate Science City workers so they know they are working in a sacred place, like a church, Maberry said. Employees must follow codes of conduct that include no smoking or urinating outdoors.
Haleakala, or the "House of the Sun," rests firmly in Hawaiian lore as the place where the demigod Maui roped the sun in order to slow its pace across the sky. Supporters have said the history makes it a fitting place for solar astronomical exploration.
However, opponents of the telescope have organized their own broad-based coalition, called Kilakila O Haleakala. The nonprofit created solely to fight the telescope is led by Maui Community College Hawaiian language instructor Kiope Raymond and award-winning Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Ed Lindsey.
"The construction of a 14-story solar observatory on the sacred summit of Haleakala cannot be mitigated by implying that since our ancestors were farmers, fishermen, healers, artists and yes, astronomers, then building the observatory is consistent with Native Hawaiian tradition and spirituality," Raymond said.
The argument that the telescope is appropriate because Hawaiians revered astronomy is a fallacy, he said.
Maxwell asked the National Science Foundation instead to build a planetarium for Native Hawaiian students and "help make them into scientists." But he said he hasn't heard back from the agency.
So, Maxwell and others said they'll be looking forward to upcoming public hearings to once again make their arguments.
For more information both for and against the telescope, go on the Web to atst.nso.edu and kilakilahaleakala.org.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.