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Maui Business Report 2013

(page 2 of 5)

Down to Earth

The world’s most powerful solar telescope would bring reams of new data — and research dollars — to Haleakala.

Photo: Courtesy of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope

With its hawaiian name meaning “house of the sun,” it seems fitting that Maui’s Haleakala volcano will be home to the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope — a cutting-edge device astronomers will use to study the sun over the next 50 years.

The ATST, seen here in an artist’s rendering, would be the world’s largest solar telescope.

A partnership between the University of Hawaii, National Science Foundation, and 20 collaborating institutions, the $300 million project will be the world’s largest — and most expensive — optical infrared telescope.

“Because it’s the most powerful telescope to see the sun from the ground that mankind has ever built, it will have an enormous impact on the science community,” said Jeff Kuhn, an astronomer and professor with the UH Institute for Astronomy.

Construction is now underway on the observatory that’s anticipated to go online in 2018.

Existing astronomy facilities atop Haleakala and Mauna Kea on Hawaii island already pump $100 million annually into the local economy and account for 500 high-tech jobs. Kuhn estimates Haleakala’s solar telescope will have an annual operating budget of $10 million to $15 million, and will create 30 to 40 high-paying jobs for operations.

The university is already benefiting from side contracts for the project. For example, Kuhn said UH has been contracted to build two complex infrared detectors that will be attached to back of telescope, with each contract valued at $5 million.

Making sense of the data is likely to create funding opportunities as well. He estimates the state will be able to attract $2 million to $3 million annually in new research grants related to the observatory.

“This telescope is designed to study the connection of the sun to the earth. That means seeing the outer atmosphere of the sun as it extends into space,” Kuhn said. “The existence of the world’s most powerful solar telescope – I don’t think I can overemphasize that – is a huge step in humankind’s ability to study the sun.”

The National Science Foundation also is infusing $20 million over 10 years into a mitigation program overseen by UH Maui College to assist residents pursuing degrees in Hawaiian studies and science fields. The program speaks to the sensitivity of the project site, which will endure environmental and cultural impacts from construction of the telescope’s 14-story housing facility.

“There are adverse effects, both cultural and environmental, and with the agreement created with the National Science Foundation, we need to be able to address some of that with helping Native Hawaiian students” and those interested in so-called STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — fields, said Damien Cie, director of the Kahikina O Ka La program at UH Maui that is overseeing the mitigation initiative.

The program has paid out $500,000 in merit-based stipends to 43 students since launching last May.

Hawaiian Group Challenges Project

Construction of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope began last year amid legal challenges from Maui-based Kilakila O Haleakala. The nonprofit has two pending lawsuits challenging a key land-use permit first issued in 2010 by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

At issue is the project site: Haleakala’s summit is revered in Native Hawaiian folklore as sacred. Opponents argue that erecting the massive facility there is “cultural genocide.”

“For the entire island of Maui, it is the most sacred site in terms of its past history and association of the ancient primordial gods and goddess of the past who dwell there,” the group’s attorneys with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. wrote in court documents.

They note the project’s own environmental impact statement acknowledges it “would result in major, adverse, short- and long-term direct impacts on the traditional cultural resources” atop Haleakala.

The land board reaffirmed its original vote last year, a decision Kilakila is also now appealing in court. Tourism, construction and astronomy groups have expressed support for the project.

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