Tribune-Herald staff writer

When NASA spacecraft phone home in the next decade, they could be communicating directly with one of Hawaii’s tallest mountains.

The space agency is looking to replace radio communications with laser technology, and believes Mauna Loa could be the best location for one of its new ground stations, according to state officials.

The communication relay station would be in place in 2020 if approved.

First, studies need to be done, and the Hilo-based Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems is seeking $500,000 in matching funds from the state Legislature for an engineering assessment for the project. NASA, which is partnering with PISCES on the project, would contribute the same amount.

PISCES Executive Director Rob Kelso said the facility would be the size of a small room and no larger than weather stations currently on the mountain.

The lasers, which can provide 1.2 gigabits of data per second at the speed of light, wouldn’t be visible to Big Island residents, he said. They also would be low power and would not pose a safety risk, Kelso said.

But they do need to be above the clouds, which is why the mountain is being considered, he said.

Haleakala and Mauna Kea have also been considered, but the favorite location appears to be Mauna Loa, said Jim Crisafulli, state Office of Aerospace Development director.

A specific location hasn’t been selected yet, but Kelso said a portable station would be installed first as part of a trial. Infrastructure development would begin in 2016.

Perhaps as many as 10 jobs would be tied directly to the facility, said John Hamilton, PISCES deputy director. But the state would benefit in other ways, according to PISCES, which operates under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“They (NASA) want the university system to do laser optic work,” said Kelso, a former NASA flight director.

“For them to come here, part of the deal is we set up curriculum and staff,” he said.

Such a project would also likely require expansion to the state’s broadband system, Kelso said.

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