Telescope plan backers state their case
HILO » Backers of a project to build the world's most powerful telescope say it would not desecrate Mauna Kea if it were built there.
Some native Hawaiian groups believe Mauna Kea is a sacred mountain and that the Thirty Meter Telescope would defile it.
But Michael Bolte, a Thirty Meter Telescope board member, disagrees. He acknowledges some people will never accept the telescope, but he is looking for common ground.
"The astronomy endeavor is not very different from the native Hawaiian reverence for the mountain," he said. "I think telescopes are beneficial, and I think they represent something wonderful."
The telescope is a joint project of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. Cerro Armazones in Chile is another candidate site for the device.
Once completed, the telescope will be three times bigger than the largest telescopes currently in use.
But some native Hawaiian activists and environmentalists object, saying the massive project will hurt the sacred and fragile north slope of Mauna Kea. They say the north slope is a burial ground, a public-trust resource and an important aquifer for the Big Island.
Thirty Meter Telescope's management say they understand that gaining acceptance from the community will be a key to getting the telescope built in Hawaii. The consortium already helps operate other telescopes on Mauna Kea, so it is well aware of the issues.
Sandra Dawson, TMT's site manager, emphasized the telescope would not be built on the summit and would be out of view from most places on the Big Island. She has sent out a letter to people who might oppose to the project and has asked for their input. She plans to set up a booth at the Hilo Farmers Market to talk with people about the telescope.
The group intends to finish its environmental impact statement on the telescope around April.
An environmental impact statement for Cerro Armazones has already been completed and submitted to the Chilean government for review.
Bolte will have a vote in determining where the telescope, estimated to cost $1.1 billion, will be built.
He said Mauna Kea stacked up favorably compared with Cerro Armazones in several categories.
Studies have found that the air above Mauna Kea is cold and stable, both pluses.
Mauna Kea has extensive support infrastructure, from living facilities for astronomers to roads, electricity, fiber-optic cable and water.
None of that is available on Cerro Armazones. To get to this mountain, scientists have to fly to the capital city of Santiago and board a smaller plane to the northern coastal city of Antofagasta. From there it is a two-hour drive through the Atacama Desert, the driest spot on Earth.
The Chilean mountain is 10,500 feet high, while the Mauna Kea site is about 3,000 feet higher, another plus for Hawaii.
On the other hand, the desert climate works in Cerro Armazones' favor. Cerro Armazones has no known historical, cultural or archaeological significance, and the Chilean government is promoting the development of astronomy.