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Telescopes and space missions

Telescopes and space missions

Go-ahead for protest-hit Thirty Meter Telescope, but with fewer future sites on Mauna Kea

28 May 2015
Lofty: illustration of the TMT and other telescopes on Mauna Kea

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which has been delayed for months following protests by native Hawaiians, has taken a key step towards restarting. At a press conference on 26 May, governor of Hawaii David Ige noted that the TMT – to be built on the country’s highest peak, Mauna Kea – has the right to proceed, and that all of the necessary permits for the observatory have been obtained. Yet, he criticized how the University of Hawaii has managed the land on Mauna Kea, outlining 10 improvements – some recommended and some required – for how the university uses the mountain.

Since 1968 the University of Hawaii has leased more than 44.5 km2 of land on Mauna Kea from the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) for scientific purposes, with the highest 2.1 km2 devoted to astronomy research. The top of Mauna Kea is already home to 13 telescopes, and the TMT will be the largest and most powerful instrument when it is operational in 2023. The telescope’s 30 m primary mirror will be made of 492 hexagonal segments, and a structure 66 m wide and 56 m tall will house the telescope. The TMT will sit on a plateau about 500 feet below the summit, a location picked to reduce the telescope’s visibility from the majority of the island.

Fewer telescopes

Construction of the TMT had been halted in early April following protests by native Hawaiians, who see its construction on Mauna Kea as desecration of their spiritual and cultural pinnacle. Over the past eight weeks, Ige has mostly stayed quiet regarding the protests, but now, along with giving permission for construction to restart, he requests that the university returns all of the land not used for astronomy to the jurisdiction of the DLNR. He also says that the University of Hawaii should begin decommissioning one telescope later this year with at least one-quarter of the remainder to be completely dismantled by the time the TMT is operational, with each site to be returned to its natural state.

One of those affected could be the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. It was already slated to be dismantled, starting in 2016, but that may now be brought forward. Yet according to cosmologist Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine, decommissioning a telescope is far from simple, and takes at least a couple of years. He says that the University of Hawaii – rather than the astronomical community – will likely decide which other three telescopes will be removed.

Cultural contribution

Ige also announced that the state government would work to change how the mountain is managed, and that it will form the Mauna Kea Cultural Council. This group will review the subleases to observatories, all proposed rules, and any preparatory work regarding the environmental impact of telescopes on the mountain. Thayne Currie, an astronomer with the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea who has also worked at other observatories on the site, says that this new council is a step in the right direction, provided that it “is tasked with not just simply receiving messages from the native Hawaiian community, but really considering their mission to try as much as they can to make sure their concerns are reflected in action”.

While the new rules will hit facilities on Mauna Kea, Ige, however, still believes that both science and culture should co-exist on the mountain. “Science has received most of the attention and has gotten way ahead of culture in our work on the mountain,” he says, adding that “the proper balance” between the two had been lost. In a statement, TMT members noted that “We are grateful to governor Ige for his leadership and his statement of support for TMT’s right to proceed. We will work with the framework he has put forth.”

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