Mauna Kea selected for world's largest telescope
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Mauna Kea was chosen yesterday as the site for what will become the world's largest telescope — a mega-feat of engineering that will cost $1.2 billion, create as many as 440 construction and other jobs and seal the Big Island summit's standing as the premier spot on the planet to study the mysteries of space.
But opposition to the project from environmental and Native Hawaiian groups could still prove a formidable hurdle for making the telescope a reality. Marti Townsend, program director for Kahea: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, said opposition groups will go to court to stop the project if needed.
"This is a bad decision done in bad faith," Townsend said.
The new telescope — known as the Thirty Meter Telescope — is set to be completed in 2018, following seven years of construction. Astronomers say the project is expected to spur big advances in their field and offer new insight into the universe and its celestial bodies, including whether any far-away planets are capable of sustaining life.
The TMT will be able to see 13 billion light years away, a distance so great and so far back in time that researchers predict they'll be able to watch the first stars and galaxies in the universe forming.
"It will really provide the baby pictures of the universe," said Charles Blue, a media relations specialist with the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp.
Mauna Kea's 13,796-foot summit was picked as the site for the new telescope over Chile's Cerro Armazones mountain after more than a year of study, providing some rare good news for Hawai'i construction industry officials in today's dismal economy.
"This is definitely going to be a shot in the arm for our industry," said Kyle Chock, executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership, a labor-management organization that represents the Hawaii Carpenters Union along with some 240 contractors. Chock said building the telescope will require 50 to 100 construction workers daily.
TMT Observatory has pledged to make sure many of those jobs go to Hawai'i residents.
Another 140 jobs will be created for operations over the life of the telescope.
"It's a huge announcement," Chock said.
In a news release yesterday, Gov. Linda Lingle said the decision to build the telescope in the Islands "marks an extraordinary step forward in the state's continuing efforts to establish Hawai'i as a center for global innovation for the future." She added, "Having the most advanced telescope in the world on the slopes of Mauna Kea will enhance Hawai'i's high-technology sector, while providing our students with education and career opportunities" in science.
The telescope has also been met with strong opposition from Native Hawaiian and environmental groups.
Mauna Kea is considered sacred to Native Hawaiians, while environmentalists have raised concerns about how the project will affect rare native plant and insect species atop the volcano. That opposition could affect work on the new telescope, especially if those against the project decide to head to court.
"The people are stuck. What are we going to do? Sue or lose our rights," said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, which participated in a 2007 legal challenge that helped derail plans for a $50 million addition to the W.M. Keck Observatory.
The new telescope is much bigger than that project. A draft environmental impact statement estimates that the site for the project will cover approximately 5 acres on the summit, with a 30-meter segmented mirror in a 180-foot dome housing, a 35,000-square-foot support building and a parking area. The TMT project also calls for a mid-level facility on Mauna Kea at 9,200 feet along with headquarters at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo.
Sandra Dawson, EIS manager for the project, said TMT officials have had multiple public meetings and sit-downs with residents to get their thoughts on the telescope. She has gotten about 300 comments to the draft EIS, which are being reviewed.
"What we're hoping for is that people who have in the past been in opposition will work with us to try to make this as acceptable as possible," she said. "We're going to do everything we can" to work with people.
The telescope will be the 14th on Mauna Kea. It will require a permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which TMT officials are hopeful won't be delayed. Meanwhile, the University of Hawai'i is in negotiations with TMT over the project. UH manages the summit of Mauna Kea, and Dawson said the university will get observing time in the new telescope as part of a lease.
TMT officials expect to finalize the EIS on the project by the end of the year. They expect to kick off construction in 2011.
Virginia Hinshaw, UH-Manoa chancellor, said in a statement that the project is "tremendously exciting for Hawai'i and will bring benefits both to our astronomers and certainly to our citizens through workforce development and science education."
She added the decision to choose the Islands as the site for the cutting-edge telescope highlights the role "of Hawai'i ... (in) advances in our understanding of the universe."
UH-Hilo Chancellor Rose Tseng said the new telescope "holds great potential."
"I'm doing everything I can to create the conditions under which a project like TMT can succeed on Mauna Kea and benefit the community," she said.
TMT will be built by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.
About $300 million has been pledged so far for the construction of the new telescope, said TMT's media specialist Blue. About $50 million has been pledged for design and development.
He said despite the economic downturn, "we're confident the remaining funding can be secured."
The new telescope will allow astronomers the clearest picture of space ever.
With it, astronomers will be able to view objects nine times fainter than with existing telescopes.
"It's going to keep Hawai'i at the center of the world of astronomy," said Taft Armandroff, director of the W.M. Keck Observatory, which has twin telescopes atop Mauna Kea with 10-meter mirrors, currently the world's largest. "It's a real validation that Mauna Kea is one of the absolute best places in the world to do astronomy."