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Judge approves telescope go-ahead

28 Jul 2017 Michael Banks
Back on track? Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope

A judge has recommended that a construction permit should be granted for the $1.4bn Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Retired judge Riki May Amano called on the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to issue a new permit, so long as a number of conditions are met. If the BLNR agrees with Amano’s verdict, then construction of the TMT could begin in April 2018 with completion in 2022.

Once built, the TMT will be one of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes with a 30 m primary mirror that is made up of 492 hexagonal segments. The structure that will house the telescope will be 66 m wide and 56 m tall.

The TMT board chose Mauna Kea, which already hosts 13 other telescopes, as the observatory’s site in July 2009. Over the following six years, the organization received a series of necessary approvals and permits. However native Hawaiians, who regard the Mauna Kea summit as sacred – and who had previously objected to the growth in the number of telescopes there – carried out a protest at the telescope’s ground-breaking in October 2014.

Six months later, following further demonstrations, construction was postponed. Then in December 2015, the Hawaiian Supreme Court invalidated the TMT’s building permit, ruling that the BLNR had not followed due process when it was approved. The court then remanded the case back to the board, who appointed Amano to rehear the case.

Now, following 44 days of testimony by 71 witnesses, Amano released her judgement in a 305 page document. It calls for the permit to be granted, given that nine conditions, such as that building work abides by government rules, are met. The judge also calls for “additional conditions” to be met, including that employees attend mandatory cultural and natural resources training and that the organization creates “informational exhibits” for visitors that showcase the natural, cultural and archaeological resources of Mauna Kea.

The BLNR will now invite all parties to submit their response to Amano’s verdict before making a final decision to grant the permit. Meanwhile, TMT chose La Palma in the Canary Islands as a back-up site earlier this year.

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