New solar telescope in Hawaii aims to open in 3 months

HONOLULU (AP) — The project director of a new solar telescope in Hawaii that will be the most powerful of its kind hopes scientists will be able to start observations at the facility in three months.

The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, at the summit of Haleakalā volcano on Maui, was supposed to open last fall. But Thomas Rimmele told Hawaii Public Radio on Wednesday that COVID-19 travel restrictions set back construction on its critical systems.

He hopes the current schedule won’t be affected by newly surging coronavirus cases and any additional restrictions. Rimmele was expecting to return to Maui as early as this week.

“November 15 is what we’re shooting for. We just had a big review, the final construction review that was conducted by the National Science Foundation,” Rimmele said. ”(The scientists) are getting really anxious to get their observations and data done.”

The telescope has received about 100 proposals from researchers for an initial observing window of two-and-a-half months. Picking which scientists get to go first depends heavily on atmospheric conditions and what objects are visible on a given day.

He said one quarter or even a fifth of the proposals may be approved for the first cycle.

“We are highly oversubscribed and people will have to submit proposals again for the next cycle,” he said. “That’s just how it works.”

The telescope is to be the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world. The National Solar Observatory said the Inouye telescope will be able to reveal features three times smaller than anything scientists are able to currently see on the Sun.

The Hawaii Supreme Court in 2016 affirmed a permit for the solar telescope’s construction.

The next year, more than 100 protesters tried to block a construction convoy heading to the telescope site, citing the sacredness of Haleakala’s summit. Maui police arrested six people.

Protests against another telescope planned for a different mountain and island — the Thirty Meter Telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island — have prevented construction crews from working on that project.

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