Mauna Kea astronomers feel federal shutdown


Astronomy research on Mauna Kea has emerged as another victim of the ongoing federal shutdown.

At least 10 employees of the Submillimeter Array, a series of radio telescopes on the mountain, have been furloughed while another radio telescope is being mothballed, risking the loss of a year’s worth of research.

The Gemini telescope could also lose a majority of its funding if the shutdown persists beyond the end of the month.

The Submillimeter Array is funded by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan.

Researcher Ramprasad Rao said mainly the Taiwan-funded positions remain.

“At least more than 10” employees had been furloughed, Rao estimated.

Rao added there are about 20 positions funded by the Smithsonian.

“Right now, we’re still operating,” he said.

If the array had to be shut down for an emergency, it would not have the staff needed to restart it, Rao said.

“The research is sort of continuing,” he said. “So far, we’re lucky nothing major has happened.”

The same cannot be said for the radio telescope operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as part of its “Very Long Baseline Array.”

That array, which consists of 10 telescopes across the United States, including one on Mauna Kea, was being closed temporarily Friday. It receives most of its funding from the National Science Foundation, which has closed with the shutdown.

Dale Frail, the array’s national director, told Stephens Media Hawaii that a year’s worth of research may be lost as a result.

The array is used to help map the universe, including star-forming regions and the galaxy’s spiral arms, without the interference optical telescopes face.

“We measure the motions of stars … with exquisite resolution,” he said.

But there are certain windows throughout the year when measurements need to be taken, Frail said, including one that will close shortly.

“We got a window from mid- to late-September to mid-October,” he said. “Then those observations get lost.”

Frail said it’s possible for some of that work to be salvaged if Democrats and Republicans reach a deal on spending in the next week or two.

The telescope on Mauna Kea is operated by two employees who are being furloughed or face a reduction of hours.

The Gemini telescope receives more than 50 percent of its funding from the science foundation. Chief Financial Officer Diego Correa said the observatory has enough cash to last until the end of the month.

“The advantage for us is we have funding from five other partners,” he said.

“We are considering a new plan if it goes beyond October.”

That could include asking the other partner countries to contribute additional funds, Correa said.

“We’re safe,” he said.

The mountain hosts several other observatories, most of which are funded by nonfederal or international partners.

Mark Chun, an astronomer with the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Institute for Astronomy, said the institute seeks some funding from the science foundation for research instruments, and student and postdoctoral research.

The deadline to apply for the next round of funding is November, but Chun said he doesn’t expect the shutdown to have much of an impact.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.