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U.K. to fund planned removal of telescope atop Mauna Kea

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The University of Hawaii announced Wednesday that a third observatory will be taken down from Mauna Kea — a move that fulfills the governor’s request to remove 25 percent of telescopes from the mountain, considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

Gov. David Ige made the request in May amid protests against the building of a giant, $1.4 billion telescope near the summit of the mountain.

Ige said 25 percent of the 13 telescopes already on the mountain must come down before the new Thirty Meter Telescope is ready for operation.

Construction of the new telescope has been stalled since April, when protesters blocked crews from the site.

The nonprofit company building it hasn’t indicated when it will resume construction, but the facility is still expected to be operational by 2024, spokeswoman Caroline Witherspoon said.

The university said the latest telescope marked for decommissioning will be UKIRT Observatory, formerly known as the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.

It was first identified for removal in 2009.

“It will be completely removed and the site will be restored and not used anymore,” said Guenther Hasinger, director of the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It will be done in a very careful fashion. There are multiple opportunities for the public to review what we are doing. And we are trying to do it as environmentally sensitive as possible.”

The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory has already stopped operations and started the decommissioning process along with the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Hoku Kea telescope.

The UKIRT Observatory began operations in 1979. It was built and operated by science agencies of the United Kingdom. After the U.K. said funding would stop, Hasinger said, the university took it over in 2014 and it is being operated as a research partnership involving UH, the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

Hasinger said it will be six or seven years before the observatory is removed at an estimated cost of as much as $3 million. The money has already been provided by the United Kingdom, he said.

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