A $1.4 billion multinational project to build a telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea has long been stalled by residents who consider the mountain sacred. The project’s future remains in flux as a new court hearing in Hawaii is expected later this year.
The Thirty Meter Telescope board recently decided that a site in the Canary Islands off Africa’s northwestern coast will serve as a backup.
The TMT project team, including researchers from Canada, China, India, Japan and the United States, still considers Hawaii the primary site but plans to advance with a dual-track approach.
“We will decide on which site (the telescope) will be constructed around autumn,” said Tomonori Usuda, a professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
The telescope has a 30-meter diameter primary mirror, allowing it to collect much more light than other telescopes. It can see more clearly than Japan’s Subaru Telescope.
The team says the TMT will provide new observation opportunities and serve as a tool in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics. It will help explore the era in which most of the stars and heavy elements were formed, as well as help detect potential traces of life on extrasolar planets, the team said.
Construction of the telescope began in 2014 but was halted the following year amid intensified opposition from residents concerned by damage to nature and traditional culture.
In December 2015, the Supreme Court of Hawaii revoked the TMT’s construction permit, citing procedural errors by the state government.
State agencies have been working to redo the permit process since 2016, and another court decision is expected around May.
Even if the TMT receives a new permit, the completion of the observatory is likely to be delayed more than five years from the initially target of 2022.
“We remain hopeful that a state permit can be issued this year to allow construction . . . by April 2018,” TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said via email.
After falling behind schedule, the TMT board in October 2016 set La Palma in the Canary Islands as an alternate to Mauna Kea, where 13 telescopes, including Subaru, currently stand.
Opponents and supporters made their case at court hearings earlier this month. Those testifying included local astronomers of Native Hawaiian descent who support the TMT.
Marti Townsend, head of the environmental organization Sierra Club’s state chapter, described the project and existing observatories as “urban sprawl” on Mauna Kea, claiming the TMT will obstruct views, according to the TMT website. But the TMT’s location is below the summit of the volcano “to minimize its visual impact,” the website said.
“Mauna Kea is a sacred place, but not so sacred that it cannot be used for the betterment of our people,” Paul Coleman, an astrophysicist at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, testified on a separate day, according to the website.
“Allowing astronomy on Mauna Kea is definitely one of those things which brings benefits to Hawaiians. It instills pride, fosters educational benefits, and provides a source of income in a clean, green field,” he said.
“This project will not only create 300 construction jobs in the building sector, but 140 long-term positions to operate the facility,” Ishikawa said.
“Once the telescope is completed, TMT will generate about $26 million annually in income for the Hawaii economy,” Ishikawa added.
Eighty percent of the rent is set to go to the Office of Mauna Kea Management to steward the mountain and the remaining 20 percent goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, according to Ishikawa.
While the plan and costs are estimated to be about the same as the Hawaiian project, one concern for the backup site is the altitude, since La Palma is only about 2,300 meters above sea level. Mauna Kea is more than 4,000 meters above.
This means a warmer atmosphere with more humidity, which would produce less clear telescopic images.
“The winds traveling across the ocean toward the Hawaiian islands are very stable, causing less disruption as well to the imagery,” Ishikawa added, stressing that Mauna Kea is considered the best place in the Northern Hemisphere to observe the universe.
“We still believe that science and culture can coexist on Mauna Kea,” Ishikawa said.