Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine September-October 2014 - September-October 2014
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Eyes on the House of the Sun

Plans to build the world’s largest solar telescope on the summit of Haleakala have set two very different ways of seeing at odds.

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“When is a site too sacred to be built upon?” asked Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, a Hawaiian-studies professor at Maui Community College. “Would you even consider building a telescope on Machu Picchu, Mount Fuji, or Mount Zion?”

Ka‘eo’s questions drew applause at a rowdy 2006 public meeting in Paukakalo, where plans to construct the world’s largest solar telescope on the summit of Haleakala came under fire. Three years later, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) is closer to becoming a reality, despite sustained and passionate opposition from the community expected to host it. 

If built, the groundbreaking telescope will rise 143 feet from Maui’s tallest peak. Its 13-foot-diameter mirror will be capable of detecting the sun’s magnetic fields and surface phenomena with greater clarity than ever before possible. National Solar Observatory astronomers call the ATST “the biggest leap in our capability to study the sun since Galileo.”

The Observatory proposed the $274 million project to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that funds cutting-edge science. If approved, the ATST will take four years to build and could achieve first light by 2017.

Jeff Kuhn, the associate director of the University of Hawai‘i’s Institute for Astronomy, says it could revolutionize our understanding of Earth’s closest star, recalibrate our ideas about climate change, and allow us to predict and defend ourselves from solar storms.

While highly anticipated by solar scientists, the new telescope is seen as a scourge by many island residents. Native Hawaiians, wildlife biologists, and wilderness advocates contend that the ATST’s construction will desecrate one of Hawai‘i’s most significant natural and cultural treasures, endanger rare native species, and further erode the spiritual underpinnings of the Hawaiian people.

Observatory researchers evaluated seventy-two sites around the globe before declaring Haleakala the premier location for the ATST. According to their studies, no other spot on Earth possesses Haleakala’s dust-free atmosphere and dark-blue daylight sky—two qualities essential to the telescope’s operation.