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University of Hawai‘i gets NASA contract potentially worth $85M for management of Maunakea telescope

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Asteroid 2020 XL5, lower left. Photo Courtesy: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine

The University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy has been selected by NASA to continue to operate the agency’s Infrared Telescope Facility on Maunakea on the Big Island, a primary asset in NASA’s planetary defense system.

NASA made the announcement in a June 30 news release.

Among its many science programs, the Infrared Telescope Facility is used to identify asteroids and comets that may pose a threat to Earth. The NASA contract with UH has a maximum potential value of approximately $85.5 million and could extend through December 2033, according to the space agency. UH will be responsible for observatory maintenance, operations and more.


UH will also develop and implement an operations strategy so that the scientific community can use the facility through peer-reviewed competition to assist NASA in achieving its scientific discovery, mission support and planetary defense goals.

The Infrared Telescope Facility is a 3.0-meter telescope optimized for infrared observations that was originally built to support NASA’s Voyager missions. It started operations in 1979 and has been operated by UH ever since. About 30 Institute for Astronomy researchers and staff based in Hilo and Honolulu support the facility.

About half of the Infrared Telescope Facility’s observing time is reserved for objects within the solar system, and the remainder is available for general astrophysics. The observing time is openly competed for, with proposals solicited from the entire astronomical community. As a federally-funded facility all observing data from the Infrared Telescope Facility is made available to the public.


The telescope funding comes from the NASA Near-Earth Object Observations Program in the Planetary Defense Coordination Office of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The Infrared Telescope Facility’s main role for NASA planetary defense is to spectrally characterize near-Earth objects which can be used to assess potential impact damage. The Infrared Telescope Facility and UH continue to develop new instrumentation to improve this capability.

Another role is to provide ground-based observations in support of NASA space missions. Examples include observations to support the Galileo mission to Jupiter in the mid-1990s, and more recently the Juno mission to Jupiter, the Akatsuki mission to Venus (a collaboration with the Japan space agency) and missions to asteroids. As an optical-infrared telescope, a unique feature of the Infrared Telescope Facility is the ability to conduct daytime observations of planets and comets to within 20 degrees of the sun.


In 2021, the Infrared Telescope Facility analyzed the characteristics of an asteroid as large as the Golden Gate Bridge that made a close pass by Earth, about five times the distance to the Moon. The NASA telescope played a major role in studying an unusual celestial phenomenon in 1994, the first collision ever witnessed between a comet and a planet.


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