The University of Arizona began operating its first telescope on the island of Hawaii in October 2014.
A year later, the governor of Hawaii ordered the closure of three telescopes on Mauna Kea and earlier this month the University of Hawaii, which leases and manages the site, chose the UA-operated telescope as the third to be closed.
The former United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is one of three telescopes that are slated for removal in an effort to mitigate the environmental and cultural degradation of the mountain by a giant telescope whose construction has been opposed by native Hawaiians and environmentalists.
The controversial new giant is the Thirty Meter Telescope, being built by an international consortium, headed by the California universities.
In a sense, the UA is taking a hit for the rival team. The UA is involved in a separate international consortium that is building the Giant Magellan Telescope on a mountaintop in Chile. It held its ceremonial groundbreaking this month.
The seven 8.4-meter mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope are being fabricated and polished at the UA’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab.
The decommissioning plan does not signal an immediate halt to the UA’s science program on Mauna Kea, said Richard Green, UKIRT’s director.
Green said the university always planned to abide by a longterm plan to decommission the telescope by 2033. “In the course of the issues surrounding the construction of TMT, the governor called for an accelerated pace,” he said.
The only deadline mentioned in the governor’s decision was that Mauna Kea would have 25 percent fewer telescopes on it by the time TMT begins science operations.
That won’t happen until 2023 or so, depending on whether legal challenges to the telescope delay or even halt its construction.
Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been delayed by protests, roadblocks and court appeals since its ceremonial groundbreaking in October 2014.
This month, the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the TMT organization to halt all preparation work at the site until Dec. 2 or until it issues a ruling in the most recent appeal of a lower court’s order that it could proceed.
Jodi Leong, press secretary to Hawaii Gov. David Ige, said that order makes it impossible to identify a deadline for decommissioning UKIRT.
Whatever the outcome, said Green, the UA will continue a number of research programs at the telescope for the next several years.
The telescope itself was transferred by the United Kingdom to the University of Hawaii, which also holds the lease on the astronomical preserve atop Mauna Kea, the giant cinder cone on the island of Hawaii that is already home to some of the world’s largest telescopes.
The telescope is being operated by the UA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems on a number of projects, including a NASA study of space debris and a hunt for dangerous asteroids.
With a 3.5-meter mirror and a wide-field camera, the telescope is a complement to the UA’s Large Binocular Telescope on Arizona’s Mount Graham, which peers into the heavens with extreme resolution in more pinpoint fashion, said Green.