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Maunakea observatories prepare to reopen

Maunakea Observatories are gradually resuming activities after being given the go-ahead to reopen last week.

Along with other “nonessential” establishments, the observatories within the Maunakea Science Reserve have been closed since March in accordance with Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state.

However, Ige last week issued another proclamation allowing certain establishments — including astronomical observatories — to reopen last Thursday.

But while they are now allowed to reopen, it might be some time before the Maunakea Observatories are able to return to full operations.

“We’re going to be going at a slower, more deliberate pace,” said John O’Meara, chief scientist at the W. M. Keck Observatory. “We have two telescopes up there, and we’re going to get them live one at a time.”

All businesses and facilities that were permitted to reopen last week must comply with social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Because of this, O’Meara said, the majority of Keck’s employees are still working from home, with only a skeleton crew being sent to the summit each week.

O’Meara added that it will take time to bring the observation back to operational capacity — longer still, considering the additional safety measures needed to sanitize shared surfaces.

“I don’t know when we’ll be beginning science operations again, but as soon as we can guarantee the safety of our crews, we will,” O’Meara said. “If we’re going slower but safer, then I think that’s the right choice.”

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, meanwhile, was able to resume nighttime observations last Thursday, said Doug Simons, that telescope’s executive director.

“I was pleased to see a night log with some actual data after so long,” Simons said.

However, most of Canada-France-Hawaii’s personnel are also still telecommuting for the time being, and social distancing requirements limit the amount of engineering staff that can be sent to the summit at any one time, Simons said.

Meanwhile, the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine on arriving travelers remains in effect and is affecting observatory operations in its own way.

Simons said Canada-France-Hawaii’s internship program, which attracts several dozen interns every year, has been suspended indefinitely.

“The summer is important for that program, because those are mostly college students,” Simons said. “It’s less visible, but that’s a big impact on us.”

O’Meara said Keck has told all out-of-state observers to not plan any travel to Hawaii until further notice, but added that remote observation is still possible.

The shutdown, which lasted more than a month, is the longest Keck has ceased observations in its entire history, O’Meara said, but is the second such shutdown in less than a year after the Maunakea Observatories ceased operations for four weeks in 2019 due to the anti-Thirty Meter Telescope protests on the Maunakea Access Road.

“The good thing about that is that we learned a lot about how to come back online last year,” O’Meara said. “Not that I think we did a bad job last year, but we learned how to do better.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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