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Big Island Business Report 2014

(page 6 of 8)

Written in the Stars

Astronomical research brings astronomical economic boost for Hawaii Island.

Born out of a need to revive the Hilo side of the Island after the devastation of the tsunami three years prior, astronomy atop Mauna Kea has been thriving since its inception. The location has proven to be one of the best (if not the best) in the world for the industry.

“It’s hard to understate the value of Mauna Kea,” says Dr. Roy Gal, assistant astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (UH IfA). “In terms of being able to see the whole sky, you need telescopes in both hemispheres. In the Northern hemisphere, Mauna Kea is the best.”  

Photos: Courtesy of TMT Observatory Corp.

Mauna Kea offers the three things Gal says are most important to astronomers: darkness, image quality and dryness. Plus, because the summit is above the clouds, it offers clearer skies than most other places. Not only does this attract astronomers from all over the world, but it also helps to provide capital for Hawaii Island.

“For our Island, we need to look at stability of jobs, which to me is why astronomy is important,” says Barry Taniguchi, who served for 12 years as chair of the Mauna Kea Observatory Board and is also the owner of KTA Superstores. “It provides a base of employment year-round. They are not going to be here for three weeks and then leave.”

Not only does astronomy allow for stable dollars within the state, but it also attracts others. The site was recently chosen as a location for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is set to break ground later this year. Once completed, the telescope will be the largest, most advanced and powerful telescope on Earth.

The astronomers are not the only ones who benefit from astronomical work on Mauna Kea. Not only does the industry provide jobs both directly and indirectly, but it also provides opportunities for educating youth on both science and culture and how the two overlap. This is the mission of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii.

“Our mission came to be from a need and interest in honoring Mauna Kea by bringing together the cultural history and relevance of the mountain with scientific advancement,” says Ka’iu Kimura, the center’s executive director. “We have the awesome mission of bringing together culture and science.”

The Rundown

  • Mauna Kea has the largest collection of observatories in the world — not just in the number of telescopes, but also in their capabilities, according to Gal.
  • The Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) will contain 492 segment of 1.45-meter mirrors, according to tmt.org.
  • The TMT team has been working on laying the groundwork in Hawaii for several years to ensure the telescope is built in a respectful manner. They even regularly consult with the local community on the best ways they can give back to it. As a result, TMT has promised two major things: $1 million per year toward local education and the institution of a workforce pipeline program, according to Sandra Dawson, manager of Hawaii community affairs for the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp.
  • TMT is the result of a partnership among the U.S., Canada, India, China and Japan. “It builds on Hawaii’s long-time role as the nexus of the Pacific,” Gal says.
  • The astronomy industry atop Mauna Kea has invested more than $1 billion in capital infrastructure in 13 distinct astronomical facilities. It also employs roughly 600 people and contributes more than $150 million annually to the Island’s economy, according to the Office of Mauna Kea Management.

Spotlight On: University of Hawaii at Hilo Astronomy

Faculty from the University of Hawaii at Hilo Astronomy department pay yearly visits to DOE schools as part of Gemini Observatory’s Journey through the Universe initiative. The Journey program combines K-12 students and teachers with professors and faculty from UHH Astronomy, as well as astronomers from nearby observatories, with the aim of inspiring students to consider including STEM fields in their educational goals. UHH Astronomy faculty are able to demonstrate examples of career options that lead to work on Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa for those who choose to stay on Hawaii Island. The Astronomy department also contributes to local Onizuka Science Day and AstroDay activities by providing educational and entertaining programs that promote an interest in astronomy for kids and adults of all ages.


$25.8 Million

The estimated annual operating costs of the Thirty Meter Telescope, contributing to state and local economy.

– Source: tmt.org


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