New Mauna Kea telescope a real coup
By Jay Fidell
Two weeks ago, after two years of review, the nonprofit consortium planning to build the next-generation Thirty Meter Telescope decided to build it on the top of Mauna Kea, the symbol of Hawai'i's current leadership in astronomy.
TMT will be the largest and most powerful telescope in the world. The mirror will be nearly 100 feet across with 492 separately controlled segments. It will have a 180-foot dome and will cover 5 acres at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. This is the first new telescope to be built on Mauna Kea since 1999, when the Subaru and Gemini telescopes were built.
Although the University of Hawai'i-Hilo manages Mauna Kea, TMT will be operated by the partners of the consortium — the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
The nonprofit will spend $1 billion and provide 140 world-class science and support jobs, and at least 300 construction jobs. TMT will let us rub shoulders with the great scientific institutions around the world and maintain Hawai'i at the forefront of astronomical research. It's great news in a downturn.
STATE OF THE ART
TMT will have nine times the collecting area of any telescope today. It will allow scientists to see 13 billion light years away and offer new insights into whether distant planets can sustain life. It's an astronomer's dream.
It will have the latest technologies in "segmented mirror design," "precision control" and "adaptive optics" to compensate for the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere, which will allow TMT to see as clearly as if it were in space.
But it won't be done until 2018. TMT is budgeting two years for the EIS and then seven years for the construction. There are many things to do before TMT will be able to realize its destiny as one of greatest telescopes in the world.
FOLLOWING THE RULES
TMT has been looking at Hawai'i since 2005. Two years ago, the activists got a court order blocking a $50 million telescope project at the Keck observatory, and Keck terminated that project. UH and TMT want to avoid a similar result.
They have conducted 14 community meetings, many more than were required. When they circulated their draft EIS in May, they found 90 percent of the community supported the telescope. Given this showing of acceptance, TMT chose Hawai'i.
They are now considering some 300 comments to the draft EIS and are trying to be as sensitive as possible in dealing with the concerns expressed. The EIS is supposed to be finalized by year-end so that construction can start in 2011.
They hope to achieve a "win-win" by engaging communities all around the Big Island. UH is willing to remove a telescope whenever a new one is built, and TMT is willing to pay $1 million per year for local education. They are working on a management plan that will address all the issues that have been raised.
PEOPLE WANT THIS
Hawai'i's tech industry is delighted with TMT, of course. Hawai'i's construction industry and unions are pleased — they like jobs. The governor wants it, and for that matter so does OHA. The Institute for Astronomy at UH is ecstatic. There are huge opportunities here.
But not everyone is thrilled. The activists who oppose aquaculture and other tech projects in Hawai'i also oppose telescopes. They claim TMT's decision to come to Hawai'i "is a bad decision done in bad faith."
If TMT is blocked, it'll go to Chile. We'll lose a billion plus and the world will know Hawai'i is not the right place for astronomy. We don't have unlimited chits on our goodwill dance card — at some point, we have to prove up.
Do we want to survive as a place we can raise our children, or have we decided otherwise. We need to put a value on progress, not fight it at every turn. We need to look into the future and make it sustainable. There is no turning back.
If you care about this project, speak up. The silent majority effectively lost the ferry. Will the silent majority now also lose the most advanced telescope in the world, along with our birthright to world-class astronomy? We'll know soon.