Tue. Feb 18th, 2020

Hawaiian gods cloud the view of world astronomy | Science

Two great astronomical news have jumped to the front pages and news in recent times: the first image of a black hole and the observation of the first interstellar body arrived from outside our solar system, the mysterious rock Oumuamua. In these two scientific milestones the Hawaiian observatories, the telescopes located on the highest peaks of these Pacific islands, played a decisive role. But for almost four weeks all astronomical science has stood at Mauna Kea, the highest summit in Hawaii. On July 16, protesters opposed to the construction there Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) They blocked access to that summit. And since then, the thirteen devices of the sacred mountain of the natives neither analyze black holes, nor locate dangerous asteroids, nor look for new habitable planets. Multiplying the time lost among the thirteen instruments of observation, scientists talk about a year of scientific work thrown away.

In these weeks, unique opportunities to observe astronomical phenomena that will never occur again have been lost.

"The interruption of operations in Mauna Kea has had a significant detrimental impact on scientific productivity," he explains to EL PAÍS Jennifer Lotz, director of the Gemini Observatory, of the largest telescopes in its class, with an eight meter mirror and an instrument specialized in capturing distant planets in detail. Gemini is a project that consists of two twin telescopes in each hemisphere to work together to observe the whole sky. Now he's one-eyed. "The negatively affected science ranges from the solar system to distant quasars," he laments. In some cases, these are lost occasions forever.

Because modern astronomy is done in a network, connecting the data of some telescopes with others to obtain an information or image of greater quality and precision. That is why this protest is not hurting only the 500 scientists who work in the thirteen telescopes that are located there: there are hundreds of projects around the world that depended, to a greater or lesser extent, on those frustrated observations.

There the Subaru telescope is installed, the best that Japan has in the whole world; NASA's infrared telescope, which spends half of its time observing planets; the United Kingdom infrared telescope, the second largest on the planet of this type; or the Keck double telescope, the one that has discovered the most exoplanets in the world. All out of order.

Those responsible for all the facilities of Mauna Kea They jointly agreed that no worker, scientist or technician will remain up there while the protests that block the access road will last. "This is not a decision we make lightly, but we want to emphasize the importance of safety for our staff and facilities," said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asia Observatory.

On a normal day there are around fifty or seventy-five people working at the summit, while the rest of the staff work remotely from their offices. But it was decided not to try to operate them remotely to protect the telescopes, devices that have extraordinarily sensitive instruments, cooled almost to absolute zero. Not having technical support in situ, any minimal mishap could be fatal for these gadgets that cost millions and take years to develop.

"The interruption of operations has had a significant detrimental impact on science," laments the director of Gemini

The Gemini had a mishap as soon as the blockade began, a small leak in its cooling system that put the instruments at risk. The technicians were able to access the summit to deactivate that system and avoid greater evils, but on other occasions they have not been allowed to pass activists camped at the foot of the mountain – to prevent the construction of the TMT from starting. Relations are tense and those responsible for science have to request access to the summit in advance, which have sometimes taken several days to grant.

In this way, there are many international projects that have not been able to take advantage of their observation times in these telescopes. These periods, in which the apparatus is oriented in the direction desired by the group of researchers, are assigned well in advance and all lost opportunities will take months or years to recover. In some cases, discoveries have been lost forever, as the scientists themselves confirm: the Keck was scheduled to observe a distant planet that could only be observed that time for many decades.

Lotz explains that only during the first week of the blockade, four programs that require "critical time" observations, events that only occur within fixed time windows, were thwarted. One of these critical moments was the observations of support for NASA's Juno mission, which is currently in a 53-day orbit around Jupiter. "Therefore, another two months will pass before these observations can be tried again and by then Jupiter will no longer be favorably placed for terrestrial observations," Lotz explains.

Nor has it been possible to maintain the systematic observation of the weather on Titan, a moon of Saturn with possibilities of harboring life, for example, which weakens the series of data obtained so far, so that future results will be weaker. The discovery of a moon on a distant dwarf planet has been thwarted. In addition, it has not been possible to continue studying the volcanology of Io (a moon of Jupiter), a binary star and a quasar. All this was lost in a single week on the Gemini telescope: they have already entered the fourth week of blocking and are a dozen telescopes at that summit.

The academic community is divided with this issue that moves many people in Hawaii out of respect for the sense of grievance that the native population has been dragging for decades. Many professors at the University of Hawaii support the protest to the point of teaching at the university that has been improvised at the activist protest camp.

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