HONOLULU — Asteroids, including those that might slam into Earth. Clouds of gas and dust on the verge of forming stars. Planets orbiting stars other than our own.
This is some of the research astronomers say they missed out on as a protest blocked the road to Hawaii’s tallest mountain, one of the world’s premier sites for studying the skies.
Astronomers said they will attempt to resume observations, but they have lost four weeks of viewing — and in some cases, they won’t be able to make up the missed research. Protesters, meanwhile, say they should not be blamed for the shutdown.
Astronomers across 11 observatories on Mauna Kea canceled more than 2,000 hours of telescope viewing, work they estimate would have led to the publication of about 450 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
“Any one of them could have been spectacular, could have been Nobel Prize-winning science. We just now will never know,” said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, which operates one of Mauna Kea’s telescopes.
Stormy weather, earthquake damage and maintenance issues have interrupted observations before, but this is the longest all of the observatories on the dormant Big Island volcano have been shut down since its first telescope opened a half-century ago.
The observatories’ large telescopes are owned and operated by universities and consortiums of universities including the University of California and California Institute of Technology.
The national governments of Canada, France, Japan and others fund and operate telescopes on their own or as part of a group. Astronomers around the world submit proposals to institutions they are members of to compete for valuable time on the telescopes.
Mauna Kea’s dry air, clear skies and limited light pollution provide some of the world’s best nighttime viewing, and its number of advanced telescopes makes it an unparalleled place for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Some of the best observational astronomy being done today, some of the best and most critical scientific research, is being done on Mauna Kea,” said Rick Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society.
In 2011, three astronomers won the Nobel Prize in physics for work that relied on data gathered using Mauna Kea’s W.M. Keck Observatory. Their analysis of exploding stars, or supernovas, showed the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
Earlier this year, the East Asian Observatory was part of a global team that captured the first image of a black hole, a breakthrough that stirred talk of another Nobel.
Native Hawaiian protesters began blocking the road July 15 to stop the construction of yet another telescope, which they fear will further harm a summit they consider sacred. Hundreds of people have gathered daily to protest the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is being built by U.S. universities, along with Canada, China, India and Japan. The telescope would be Mauna Kea’s biggest yet, capable of seeing back 13 billion years.
Astronomers say the roadblock has denied them regular, guaranteed access to their facilities, which puts their staff and equipment at risk. They suspended observing on the protest’s second day.
The telescopes need to be accessible 24 hours a day to resume regular observations, so staff can to respond to things like changes in the weather, said Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which is owned by the University of Hawaii and the national research institutes of Canada and France.
“You can imagine the rain coming down on a multimillion-dollar telescope,” Simons said.
On Friday, the observatories said they would attempt to restart operations by providing protesters a list of vehicles going up the mountain and when they will be going.
Protester Kealoha Pisciotta, who was part of a yearslong legal fight against the Thirty Meter Telescope, said it wasn’t right to blame demonstrators when the observatories themselves decided to stop viewing.
“They chose to close down for fear of protesters who are unarmed and nonviolent,” Pisciotta said.
She noted law enforcement was allowing only one vehicle of Native Hawaiians to go to the summit for prayer each day, yet the U.S. and state constitutions guarantee their rights to religious and customary practices.
The state in mid-July blocked all cultural practitioners from going up the mountain when it closed the road to clear the way for construction vehicles, but it began allowing one car up in the weeks after.