Thursday, January 11, 2007


Planned Mauna Kea telescope: innocent observer or military spy on the sky?

The world now knows that the Bush administration relied on fear mongering tactics to sway public opinion to support its unfortunate incursion into Iraq.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday it was nonsense to label US intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as bogus.
--CNN, June 9, 2003

There were no WMDs of course, but we sure fell for it, didn't we. I like to think that we have learned a lesson, and that the American people will be much more critical of contrived threats used to advance military and political objectives should the tactic be tried again.

Thank goodness I didn't hold my breath waiting for politicians to stand up and confront the administration and stop the war. Few spoke out. Ultimately, the people took matters in their own hands and booted the Republicans out of Congress.

The fear-mongering that Goebbels used so effectively to bend the German people to his will would not have succeeded here if the press were not complicit. Not only were the hard questions not asked, but print and broadcast media served as cheerleaders for the Administration both in the runup to war and as it unfolded.

The stakes are high. Pan-STARRS is being designed to rapidly scan the night sky to detect asteroids and comets streaking through space on trajectories that could cause a devastating collision with Earth.
--Advertiser, January 11, 2007
Which brings us to Hawaii and the press's role in the war over the summit of Mauna Kea.

There's an article on the bottom of today's Honolulu Advertiser innocently headlined Astronomers seek to win favor that could serve as a model to journalism students researching Goebbel's methods. Note how the writer accepts without question the "potential threats" posed by the as-yet-undiscovered asteroids of mass destruction. We are supposed to react to this threat by allowing a huge telescope to be built on a sacred mountain, overcoming reasonable and long-standing public objection.

Just as the press uncritically accepted claims of Iraq's non-existent WMDs, the Advertiser has failed to check into the credibility of the threat and suitability of the proposed remedy. It's really the beginning of a case study if any student is looking for a term project.

My suspicions are obviously aroused. Why the urgency? According to the Advertiser article,
Scientists believe they can complete a survey of the potential threats in 10 years if Pan-STARRS is built on Mauna Kea, which is widely regarded as the best location for astronomy in the world. But that same work will take more than 20 years if Pan-STARRS must be built on a less desirable alternate site on Maui's Haleakala, according to planning documents for the project.
In other words, humanity has managed to survive for millions of years without this telescope, and now, to find out if we're doomed at last, we have to build it or keep worrying for an additional ten years. Oh, the pain. Will adding ten years to the mystery matter at all? There's got to be more to it than spying on evil asteroids intent on destroying civilization as we know it.

And so there is. But to find out, you need to check the story over at the Star Bulletin. In Asteroid tracker due for isles, Helen Altonn reports that
Pan-STARRS' purpose is to detect and track asteroids and comets on a threatening path toward Earth. It will also survey other moving objects in space.

Funding is provided through an agreement administered by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The UH will support maintenance and operation of Pan-STARRS and be responsible for processing what is expected to be a deluge of data and images.
(The Advertiser story also mentions the Air Force funding.)

What we learn from the Star-Bulletin story is that the telescope will track other objects in space. This is key because it is an Air Force project, and because there seems to be some kind of military contract with the University of Hawaii to analyze the data for the military.

Both Bush the Elder and Clinton allowed the Star Wars funding to lag. Now Bush the Younger has resurrected the dream of U.S. dominance of the Earth via the militarization of space.
--Bob Fitrakis, June 24, 2004
The question we need to ask may be if this telescope is part of Bush's plan to militarize space. The device will be the largest digital camera in the world, with obvious utility to the military. To dominate space it's necessary to know if anyone else is up there, and to detect and get precise coordinates on any object that they might launch.

There are unanswered (in fact, unasked) questions about the UH role in analyzing data for the military and whether this contract will be a back-door way for UH to participate in a potentially lucrative Star Wars project.

In a perverse way, the willingness to conduct an environmental impact study at a cost of $1 million or more may be as much a desire to nail down that military contract as to appease the community.

If the telescope is part of Star Wars, it also becomes a military target. The sacred mountain will be in the cross-hairs of a future enemy planning to launch something into space undetected. We have a right to know exactly what use will be made of the data collected by the proposed telescope before assuming its job is purely scientific.


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