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Undergrads at Hilo to use Mauna Kea telescope

Existing enclosure at summit recycled to contain a new 36-inch instrument

April 19, 2010
The Maui News

HILO (AP) - Astronomy undergraduates in Hilo are getting a new Mauna Kea telescope to study the stars.

University of Hawaii at Hilo astronomy professor Bill Heacox said the 36-inch telescope should be fully operational in a month or two.

Most of the dozen or so telescopes on Mauna Kea, one of the world's premiere sites for astronomy, are used by advanced researchers.

But the new Hoku Ke'a will be primarily used by the school's Department of Physics and Astronomy's undergraduate astronomy program.

To limit the environmental impact of the project, the new telescope is being installed in the renovated enclosure of an old 24-inch telescope.

Heacox likened the process to cramming 3 pounds of Spam into a 1-pound can.

A final environmental assessment released in early 2007 determined that replacing the old telescope would have no significant impact.

The National Science Foundation is funding the telescope with a $640,000 grant, and UH-Hilo is spending $600,000 to refurbish the white enclosure.

The old telescope was removed in 2008, but the arrival of its replacement was repeatedly delayed.

''Two years later, and basically we are happy to get it,'' Heacox said Wednesday. ''The delays were at the manufacturer's end, and we're not sure what the manufacturer's problems were.''

The telescope has a primary mirror 3 feet across, replacing the obsolete 2-foot-diameter mirror in the previous telescope.

Testing will take about a month, and if everything checks out, UH-Hilo will take ownership of the telescope from manufacturer Equinox Interscience.

Hoku Ke'a is the Hawaiian name for the Southern Cross constellation.

Mauna Kea is popular with astronomers because its 13,796-foot summit sits well above the clouds and offers a clear view of the sky 300 days a year.

Environmentalists and Native Hawaiian groups argue that the university needs to do more to protect the mountain. The dormant volcano is home to endangered species and one confirmed Hawaiian burial site and perhaps four more.

They've challenged the University of Hawaii's management of the mountain, including its plans to allow a consortium of California and Canadian universities to build the world's largest telescope there. The Thirty Meter Telescope is expected to be completed by 2018.



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