- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

HILO, Hawaii (AP) - The Mauna Kea observatories have spent nearly 50 years helping write the history of the universe, but now it’s their story they want to tell.

On a Saturday in January, a hui made of telescope operators and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center hosted the first official tour of the Kama’aina Observatory Experience, a new program established exclusively for Hawaii residents.

The free tours are meant to give residents an intimate look at some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, and follows, at no coincidence, a tumultuous year for astronomy in Hawaii.

Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope, told a small group of journalists during a tour preview that the program is intended to provide the public a better understanding of the observatories and how the mountain is managed.

Ultimately, he hopes that will help pave the way for middle ground between scientists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners. That divide has only seemed to grow during the past year after protests and legal challenges led by Native Hawaiians opposed to development on a mountain they consider sacred put a halt to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

“There’s a whole structure here that I suspect is invisible to most people,” said Simons, also an Office of Mauna Kea Management board member.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to expose in this whole process.”

While the tour showcases the telescopes - awe-inspiring in their own right - it does take time to address the cultural and environmental importance of the tallest mountain in Hawaii, seen traditionally as the Big Island’s sacred piko and part of the Hawaiian creation story, though within the context of balance with modern uses.

“It’s absolutely necessary we properly preserve these for years to come,” said Dashiel Naea Stevens, an interpretive guide at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, during a presentation about the mountain’s cultural resources.

Many of the protesters say the mountain is too sacred to allow development, and astronomers worry the movement to protect it from construction could sink their efforts to gain a new master lease, needed for the telescopes to operate after 2033.

Simons said observatory operators recognize the frustration in the Hawaiian community with how the mountain has been managed.

“There is a personal connection to this mountain that is unique in this state,” he said. “We feel this personal connection, this historical connection at the family level, that we want to make sure is involved in the future vision of Mauna Kea.”

But those statements alone likely will do little to win over TMT opponents, many of whom view development on the mountain as another example of alienation of Hawaiians and their culture in their homeland.

Lanakila Mangauil, a leader of the anti-TMT protests, referred to the tour program in a Facebook post as propaganda meant to support building the giant observatory. He suggested TMT opponents sign up for the tours and question officials about the history of development there.

“The fight with TMT has exposed all the same lies and illegal actions they did in order to destruct the sacred summit, that fragile ecosystem,” he wrote. “If the other telescopes want to start making waves, we can bring all (their) history to light too.”

Wally Ishibashi, an OMKM cultural adviser who traces his lineage to Poliahu, the snow goddess Hawaiians believe resides on Mauna Kea, told the media participants during the tour preview that there can be a balance between scientific research and cultural practices.

“The partnership with astronomy is awesome,” he said. “This is part of our legacy. We were always star watchers, cloud watchers.”

Participants in the media tour were shuttled above 13,000 feet to the top of the mountain, which appeared as an island in a sea of clouds and vog, where the air is thin and the temperature nearly freezing.

It’s that thin atmosphere and unparalleled view of the stars that has attracted 13 telescopes to the summit. In the past, Ishibashi said Hawaiian alii and kahuna would come to watch the heavens and experience the mountain’s mana.

Those conditions are hardly a deterrent for those wanting to take in the mountain’s impressive views, and neither did they detract much from the tour inside CFHT and Gemini Observatory, where telescopes tower inside large domes, offering humanity a window to the universe.

The two scopes together have spent 54 years studying the stars and still carry out groundbreaking research, tour guides said, while emphasizing the state-of-the-art instruments both continue to host.

“This is why after 37 years we are ranked No. 3 in scientific productivity,” said Mary Beth Laychak, CFHT outreach program manager.

But it was one discovery that caused Simons, who was previously Gemini’s Hawaii director, to get choked up.

He explained the Gemini telescope captured the first image of a planet in another solar system, noting much of that work was done by kama’aina staff.

“It’s moments like that that give you incredible pride,” Simons said. “That sucker is going into textbooks for the next century. It will be the first picture, you can only do it once, and it was done here in Hawaii on Mauna Kea, and I want everybody to be proud because we all did that.”

Throughout the years, as the telescopes move toward automation, there have been fewer workers needed at the top of the mountain. At Gemini, there are between six and 10 people at the telescope during the day and none at night, said Joy Pollard, the observatory’s tour coordinator and graphic artist.

Simons said kama’aina make up between 50 and 60 percent of the staff at the 13 observatories.

The tour provided more than a few chicken-skin moments as the media guests were taken into the large domes and up close and personal with the telescopes, which rose as high as eight stories.

At a surprisingly quick pace, domes were opened and rotated, exposing the day’s bright blue sky, all without generating much more than a low mechanical hum.

The speed at which the observatories can reposition themselves allows them to switch targets every 5 to 10 minutes, Pollard said.

“If you don’t get on (the target) right away, it’s too late,” she said, using distant gamma ray bursts as an example.

While tour organizers had plenty to showcase and pack into a few hours, one question continued to linger unanswered: What is the future of astronomy in Hawaii?

Despite the challenges, Simons said he remains optimistic that there is room for middle ground, with the tours providing a leading role.

“I generally believe over time it will be a seed for resolution,” he said.

While Ishibashi agrees the mountain can accommodate science and Hawaiian religious beliefs, he seemed less optimistic that the sides will come together, at least anytime soon.

“It’s a sacred site, but the mountain is big enough for everybody,” he said.

“I’m just happy we have the opportunity to share this with the world.”

___

Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, https://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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