Clear skies ahead? The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope hopes to begin construction this year atop Haleakala.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Joe Decruyenaere
In 2008 solar astronomer Robert Rosner told Science that "the time has come" to build the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST). Four years later, those working on the $300 million telescope are finally close to getting their wish as a 5-year fight over siting the telescope on a Hawaiian mountaintop draws to an end.
On Monday, ATST opponents submitted their final arguments for why the state of Hawaii should not grant a permit allowing the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of Hawaii to start building the telescope, which will explore the sun's physical properties in unprecedented detail. Their 54-page brief attempts to rebut a 16 July recommendation to the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources to green-light work at the summit of the Haleakala shield volcano that will house the 43-meter-high telescope. It is the penultimate step in a highly regimented process of hearings, site visits, public comments, and paperwork meant to ensure compliance with all relevant state and federal laws.
Last month’s recommendation lists 19 conditions that the project must satisfy to address concerns about the telescope's impact on the area's flora and fauna, on the visual beauty of the site, and on its cultural and religious significance. (According to Hawaiian legend, the site is where the demigod Maui struck a deal with the sun.) NSF has already agreed to fund a $20 million initiative to improve science education at a local community college and to reserve 2% of the viewing time on the telescope for qualified Native Hawaiian scientists.
A citizens' group known as Kilakila o Haleakala (Majestic is Haleakala) has spent 5 years fighting the proposed telescope. In its latest filing, an appeal of the board's December 2010 decision to grant ATST a permit, its attorneys paint a picture of an upstart organization taking on "a powerful coalition" that includes the state's leading politicians, businesses, and labor leaders. And they acknowledge that defeat is imminent.
"Kilakila o Haleakala has known for a long time now that its chances of success are slim," the appeal concludes. "Construction of the ATST has appeared inevitable for quite some time. Yet it is the fight against the inevitable that makes us human."
"The contingencies are something that we have been aware of for quite some time," says William Smith, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C., which is managing the project. "We plan to start construction pretty quickly once we get the final go-ahead, definitely before the end of the calendar year."
Each side will summarize its position at a hearing next month before the board, which is expected to hand down a final ruling a week or so later.
If the permit is upheld, Smith says that ATST project officials will submit a revised budget to NSF based on a new timetable for construction, which was originally set for 2010. That 2-year delay will probably mean a higher price tag. ATST would be the first ground-based solar telescope funded by the federal government in more than 40 years.